What really happened on Easter Island?

I headed down to Port­land State last night for a talk titled “What (Really) Hap­pened on Easter Island?” What fol­lows are my notes from Terry Hunt’s talk about life on Easter Island and what caused the pop­u­la­tion to disappear.

Much of Hunt’s sub­ject mat­ter will be in his upcom­ing book, “The Stat­ues that Walked,” as well as his con­tri­bu­tions to “Ques­tion­ing Col­lapse”, a series of essays ques­tion­ing Jared Diamond’s ideas around cul­tural col­lapse. Pop­u­lar ideas of the remote island soci­ety, 4,000 kilo­me­ters from Chile, that Euro­peans met in the 18th-century are based on evi­dence that Hunt says is out­dated and often bla­tantly wrong.

Hunt dis­putes the idea that Easter Island’s soci­ety col­lapsed as a result of ances­tors’ impru­dence. He does not think they cut down an ancient for­est and com­mit­ted eco­cide before first con­tact with Euro­peans, who came later in 1722.

Easter-IslandHunt says that the island had a dis­parate pop­u­la­tion who was resource­ful and care­ful with their pop­u­la­tion man­age­ment. He posited that build­ing stat­ues was per­haps a way to divert energy away from food pro­duc­tion. This served as an indi­rect limit on pop­u­la­tion as a por­tion was devoted to build­ing, trans­port­ing, and plan­ning the stat­ues. The lay­out of the island and place­ment of agri­cul­tural areas was not likely to have cre­ated a cen­tral vil­lage or a cen­tral chief on the tiny island.

The island’s lone for­est, which is gen­er­ally thought to have been cut down to pro­vide the logs needed to move the Moai stat­ues, was actu­ally lost to a more nat­ural dis­as­ter. The Poly­ne­sian set­tle­ment of the island intro­duced rats to a native pop­u­la­tion devoid of predators.

As Hunt said, “When you intro­duce rats to an island you intro­duce teeth for the first time.” This rat pop­u­la­tion, which could dou­ble every 47 days in the ideal con­di­tions Easter pro­vided, was more likely to have caused the defor­esta­tion. By eat­ing the seeds of the native palm trees the rats would have destroyed the for­est in a mat­ter of years. Hunt ref­er­enced a sim­i­lar phe­nom­e­non that occurred on the Hawai­ian islands after settlement.

Ulti­mately Hunt believes Easter Island’s res­i­dents were far more care­ful with their envi­ron­ment than many believe. Their great­est achieve­ment was cre­at­ing a soci­ety that sur­vived for 500 years on a bar­ren island devoid of nat­ural streams and only receive irreg­u­lar rainfall.