Easter Island, famous for its iconic stone heads, has a mysterious past. Known as Rapa Nui in the language of its Polynesian natives, scientists and historians agree that the island was once lushly forested, but the cause of its transformation into the rocky and barren outcrop it is today is a point of debate.
The island lies over 2,000 miles west of Chile, isolated in the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The first colonizers of the island were ancient Polynesians, who reached it by sailing in open-air canoes from islands to the west. The settlers left behind remains of an ancient society, such as the island’s famous multiton stone heads, which line the beaches and look out across the sea. After colonization–just how long after is one of the major questions of debate–the forested island had been changed into a barren and windswept land.
As explained in a recent article in National Geographic, there are two major theories about the island’s transformation. In his 2005 book “Collapse,” UCLA anthropologist Jared Diamond argues that the decline of the island’s forest ecosystem is an example of what he terms “ecocide,” or the devastation of a fragile environment via overuse by humans. Diamond argues that the Polynesians arrived on the island in about AD 800, and began making unlimited use of the island’s forests for fuel and construction. Given the island’s isolated and windy location in the middle of the Pacific, once the forests were gone, the topsoil was quickly blown away. Thus scoured, the rocky land could not recover its original flora.
Archaeologists Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt, of Cal State Long Beach and the University of Hawaii, respectively, suggest another story. They believe that the Polynesians did not arrive until AD 1200, giving the settlers a much shorter time in which to harvest the island’s forests. However, Lipo and Hunt argue that the devastation of the island’s ecosystem was not the result of the human settlers directly, but rather was the work of a stowaway that came along with them—rats. Based on such evidence as the short time in which the island’s forests disappeared, and physical signs such as marks on recovered palm nuts, Lipo and Hunt say that devastation by an introduced species is more plausible than simple human overuse. With no natural predators, and with a plentiful food source in the nuts produced by the island’s palms, the rats quickly overran the island and destroyed its natural balance.
In the wake of this devastation, Lipo and Hunt argue that the settlers are best considered not as rapacious destroyers of the environment, but as ingenious workers who had to make the best of an unintended bad situation. The researchers argue that the characteristic traits of the island’s original population, in particular their movement of large amounts of rock, are signs of their attempts to recover the barren land for cultivation. In their book “The Statues that Walked,” Hunt and Lipo claim that the rocks moved by the islanders were moved with less wooden support than previous researchers claim was needed, and that the sharpened artifacts left behind were used for farming, not as weapons.
After European discovery, the island’s population dwindled due to a combination of factors, including imitation of the newcomers’ lifestyles and the introduction of new diseases. The island today is populated by a mixture of descendants of the original population and new settlers from outside. The society thrives on tourism, and the inhabitants look to both versions of the past—the story of rapacity and the story of ingenuity—for guidance in how to handle their future.