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society, 4,000 kilometers from Chile, that Europeans met in the 18th-century are based on evidence that Hunt says is outdated and often blatantly wrong.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.
Hunt 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.