Return Home

What Happened On Easter Island — A New (Even Scarier) Scenario

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 - 08:41 AM

We all know the story, or think we do.

Let me tell it the old way, then the new way. See which worries you most.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

First version: Easter Island is a small 63-square-mile patch of land — more than a thousand miles from the next inhabited spot in the Pacific Ocean. In A.D. 1200 (or thereabouts), a small group of Polynesians — it might have been a single family — made their way there, settled in and began to farm. When they arrived, the place was covered with trees — as many as 16 million of them, some towering 100 feet high.

These settlers were farmers, practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, so they burned down woods, opened spaces, and began to multiply. Pretty soon the island had too many people, too few trees, and then, in only a few generations, no trees at all.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

As Jared Diamond tells it in his best-selling book, Collapse, Easter Island is the "clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources." Once tree clearing started, it didn't stop until the whole forest was gone. Diamond called this self-destructive behavior "ecocide" and warned that Easter Island's fate could one day be our own.

When Captain James Cook visited there in 1774, his crew counted roughly 700 islanders (from an earlier population of thousands), living marginal lives, their canoes reduced to patched fragments of driftwood.

And that has become the lesson of Easter Island — that we don't dare abuse the plants and animals around us, because if we do, we will, all of us, go down together.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

And yet, puzzlingly, these same people had managed to carve enormous statues — almost a thousand of them, with giant, hollow-eyed, gaunt faces, some weighing 75 tons. The statues faced not outward, not to the sea, but inward, toward the now empty, denuded landscape. When Captain Cook saw them, many of these "moai" had been toppled and lay face down, in abject defeat.

OK, that's the story we all know, the Collapse story. The new one is very different.

A Story Of Success?

It comes from two anthropologists, Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, from the University of Hawaii. They say, "Rather than a case of abject failure," what happened to the people on Easter Island "is an unlikely story of success."

Success? How could anyone call what happened on Easter Island a "success?"

Well, I've taken a look at their book, The Statues That Walked, and oddly enough they've got a case, although I'll say in advance what they call "success" strikes me as just as scary — maybe scarier.

Here's their argument: Professors Hunt and Lipo say fossil hunters and paleobotanists have found no hard evidence that the first Polynesian settlers set fire to the forest to clear land — what's called "large scale prehistoric farming." The trees did die, no question. But instead of fire, Hunt and Lipo blame rats.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Polynesian rats (Rattus exulans) stowed away on those canoes, Hunt and Lipo say, and once they landed, with no enemies and lots of palm roots to eat, they went on a binge, eating and destroying tree after tree, and multiplying at a furious rate. As a reviewer in The Wall Street Journal reported,

In laboratory settings, Polynesian rat populations can double in 47 days. Throw a breeding pair into an island with no predators and abundant food and arithmetic suggests the result ... If the animals multiplied as they did in Hawaii, the authors calculate, [Easter Island] would quickly have housed between two and three million. Among the favorite food sources of R. exulans are tree seeds and tree sprouts. Humans surely cleared some of the forest, but the real damage would have come from the rats that prevented new growth.

As the trees went, so did 20 other forest plants, six land birds and several sea birds. So there was definitely less choice in food, a much narrower diet, and yet people continued to live on Easter Island, and food, it seems, was not their big problem.

Rat Meat, Anybody?

For one thing, they could eat rats. As J.B. MacKinnon reports in his new book, The Once and Future World, archeologists examined ancient garbage heaps on Easter Island looking for discarded bones and found "that 60 percent of the bones came from introduced rats."

So they'd found a meat substitute.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

What's more, though the island hadn't much water and its soil wasn't rich, the islanders took stones, broke them into bits, and scattered them onto open fields creating an uneven surface. When wind blew in off the sea, the bumpy rocks produced more turbulent airflow, "releasing mineral nutrients in the rock," J.B. MacKinnon says, which gave the soil just enough of a nutrient boost to support basic vegetables. One tenth of the island had these scattered rock "gardens," and they produced enough food, "to sustain a population density similar to places like Oklahoma, Colorado, Sweden and New Zealand today."

According to MacKinnon, scientists say that Easter Island skeletons from that time show "less malnutrition than people in Europe." When a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggevin, happened by in 1722, he wrote that islanders didn't ask for food. They wanted European hats instead. And, of course, starving folks typically don't have the time or energy to carve and shove 70-ton statues around their island.

A 'Success' Story?

Why is this a success story?

Because, say the Hawaiian anthropologists, clans and families on Easter Island didn't fall apart. It's true, the island became desolate, emptier. The ecosystem was severely compromised. And yet, say the anthropologists, Easter Islanders didn't disappear. They adjusted. They had no lumber to build canoes to go deep-sea fishing. They had fewer birds to hunt. They didn't have coconuts. But they kept going on rat meat and small helpings of vegetables. They made do.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

One niggling question: If everybody was eating enough, why did the population decline? Probably, the professors say, from sexually transmitted diseases after Europeans came visiting.

OK, maybe there was no "ecocide." But is this good news? Should we celebrate?

I wonder. What we have here are two scenarios ostensibly about Easter Island's past, but really about what might be our planet's future. The first scenario — an ecological collapse — nobody wants that. But let's think about this new alternative — where humans degrade their environment but somehow "muddle through." Is that better? In some ways, I think this "success" story is just as scary.

The Danger Of 'Success'

What if the planet's ecosystem, as J.B. MacKinnon puts it, "is reduced to a ruin, yet its people endure, worshipping their gods and coveting status objects while surviving on some futuristic equivalent of the Easter Islanders' rat meat and rock gardens?"

Humans are a very adaptable species. We've seen people grow used to slums, adjust to concentration camps, learn to live with what fate hands them. If our future is to continuously degrade our planet, lose plant after plant, animal after animal, forgetting what we once enjoyed, adjusting to lesser circumstances, never shouting, "That's It!" — always making do, I wouldn't call that "success."

The Lesson? Remember Tang, The Breakfast Drink

People can't remember what their great-grandparents saw, ate and loved about the world. They only know what they know. To prevent an ecological crisis, we must become alarmed. That's when we'll act. The new Easter Island story suggests that humans may never hit the alarm.

It's like the story people used to tell about Tang, a sad, flat synthetic orange juice popularized by NASA. If you know what real orange juice tastes like, Tang is no achievement. But if you are on a 50-year voyage, if you lose the memory of real orange juice, then gradually, you begin to think Tang is delicious.

On Easter Island, people learned to live with less and forgot what it was like to have more. Maybe that will happen to us. There's a lesson here. It's not a happy one.

As MacKinnon puts it: "If you're waiting for an ecological crisis to persuade human beings to change their troubled relationship with nature — you could be waiting a long, long time."


More in:

Comments [16]

andrew from atlantic city NJ

Forced adaption is not adaption but accepting the fate in witch you face.

Feb. 06 2014 06:53 AM
Robin Chappell from Los Angeles

I'm sorry, but why do Scientists and other People still insist that these barely subsistent Islanders created and then implanted (yes, implanted, as the latest archeological digs show these statues actually are buried up to 50% of their visual above ground presence) these Megaliths into an Island from which they are obviously not native to? And just how did they do it?

(Also) Obviously, there were other 'Easter Islanders' resident much, much earlier than our 'history' of this Island indicate. If they were not 'buried,' that indicates they were buried over time -- a great amount of time.

Leaving many more questions that 'Archeology' doe not want to either answer or even approach questioning.

Feb. 03 2014 03:06 PM
Phylladee from Chicago

I still want to know why they built the enormous stone monuments.

Dec. 28 2013 09:19 PM
David Tsal from Orange County, California

Excellent article. Fits my experience perfectly.

I live in Orange County, California. Not too far, in San Diego County, there is a place called La Jolla. I often traveled there and brought guests too, since it's just about the nicest places around.

But when I talked to old Californians, they told me, "What do you know? You have no idea how beautiful La Jolla was before they destroyed it."


Long ago I came to a simple yet very effective solution to all this: STOP HAVING CHILDREN!!!

I don't have any. And not because I don't like children. Rather the opposite.

At east before you have any, think: will their life be good enough?

Dec. 22 2013 02:20 AM
George Hammond

"People can't remember what their great-grandparents saw, ate and loved about the world. They only know what they know."

This idea is called "shifting baselines". There's a marine biologist and film-maker named Randy Olson that has started a great project publicizing this, especially with respect to fish populations. Lots of videos, including plenty of humor:

Dec. 17 2013 10:39 AM

Adapting is not about happiness, or dignity, or any of that fantasy stuff. It is about an equilibrium of effort and reward. When you think you have the optimal return on your effort, you cease to increase effort. Survival vs procreation. If you just continue breeding children until there is just enough shortage of everything to stabilize the birth rate with mortality then you have adapted. People did adapt to conditions in concentration camps, in my opinion, because they continued to survive. Spare me your politically correct proselytizing, please, it is nothing new; but people continue to argue in favor obvious things because it is so safe. It is just completely uninteresting. Our lives become as miserable as we allow them to become. People in horrible living conditions do nothing to change them: people living the good life their parents pay for can still be nervous wrecks - they all have adapted. They have accepted those conditions as the norm. The species is not designed to provide everybody with free healthcare and carcinogen-free food and 24 hours access to internet porn and unlimited hugs whenever you're feeling extra emo; it is designed to continue evolving, to pressure until you can barely stand it, to push population to the limit of sustainability, to feel happiness only after pain. Sorry for ranting and all the stupid things I said, cheers.

Dec. 16 2013 07:49 PM
Mike Cole from Berkeley Ca.

I love Radiolab; I'm a long time fan. The show on music? The Beethoven metranome story? In the interest of cute, you guys spoke of not really liking Beethoven, or was it just his fifth? First, clearly no one knows about the meter Beethoven meant to indicate. His music goes everywhere musical emotion and analysis can take us, the demonstration of the high speed fifth shows us the whole story is mythology; it was fun, sadly it didn't teach. The Joshua knocking down the walls segment was just plain silly. Usually I'm with you.

Dec. 15 2013 11:01 PM
Miriam English from QLD, Australia

@Wright73 - a better moral would be: have safe sex with aliens and get them to help you escape while you can. :)

Seriously though, this article is deeply worrying to me, as I'd previously assumed that everybody would wake up sooner or later. My main fear had been whether those of us trying to alert people to the problems would succeed in opening people's eyes before it was too late. Now my fear is that it may be that no amount of shouting will do the job; that people will simply accommodate the changes. It also explains something that had long puzzled me. I'm constantly astonished at documentaries in which people marvel at the "beauty" of the British Isles, when all I see is landscapes utterly denuded of trees and animal life. Long ago people chopped everything down, producing a travesty of a landscape. People have simply adjusted to it and they think it is attractive. The same thing has happened in New Zealand where people think they have a good environment, but centuries of devastation, first by the Maoris, then by the whites have exterminated almost everything and impoverished the ecology. Again, people have adjusted, not even aware of what they've lost.

This is deeply scary. We are on a runaway car hurtling toward a precipice. Our chances of stopping are suddenly looking pretty grim.

On the upside, air, water, and food quality in the cities of the developed world is better than it has been for centuries. People are living longer than ever before. The younger generations are the smartest, most literate in history. Technology is making it possible to completely undo in years much of the damage done over decades to air, water, soil, and ecosystems.

Now we just need the will do do it.

Thank you for an important article.

Dec. 14 2013 08:01 PM

Dear Robert,
very nice one, but you almost blew it with one paragraph towards the end. Please be advised: no one ever 'adjusted' to a concentration camp. There is a huge difference between adjustment and sheerest survival that could be put to an end any second, and for more people than not it is what happened. It's a very poor choice of words.
The same goes for 'growing used to slums.' Granted, in a narrow way of view it's not totally inaccurate, but still misplaced. A slum that truly deserves the name is a place where people live who cannot escape it, and they suffer. Getting used to something implies suffering to cease to a degree, or at least to be able not to notice as much as at the beginning.
Also, yes, our species is very adaptable - potentially. In principle. But since we're at 'getting used to things,' we got more used to adapting our environment to US - which is a core problem. Truly adapting the other way round, well, hasn't really happened that much lately...

Nonetheless, a good one, thanks :)

Dec. 13 2013 06:12 AM

Fascinating. I find two flaws though. 1. Tang is delicious. 2. This would have been much better with Throat Culture's "Easter Island Head" song playing in the background while I read it (go hear for details:

Dec. 12 2013 11:01 PM
Jeff Smith

Wait, the inhabitants of Easter Island had Tang?

How is beef from cows raised in feed lots any better than free range rat meat?

Dec. 12 2013 10:11 PM

How did Easter islanders keep the rats from eating away their garden food in the rocks?

Dec. 12 2013 09:21 PM

But...but...Tang IS delicious!

Dec. 12 2013 04:48 PM
Greg Hewitt from Vermont

Who is to say the real tragedy isn't the (possibly incorrectly) perceived greatness of tang with the loss of orange juice, but the loss of greatness of tang with the perceived greatness of orange juice?

Dec. 12 2013 02:28 PM
Kevin J. Maroney from Yonkers NY

The great fantasist John Crowley has written a few brilliant science fiction novels as well as his landmark fantasies. One of them is a post-collapse novel now entitled Engine Summer. But there's a reason that the working title, still quoted within the novel, was Learning to Live with It: it's one of the things at which humans absolutely excel.

Dec. 12 2013 01:41 PM

The moral of the story is, don't sleep with aliens.

Dec. 12 2013 01:20 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Supported by