In 2003, BBC had a program on why the Rapa Nui (Western Name: Easter Island) civilization came to an end. Rapa Nui had created those magnificent giant stone statues or moai from volcanic stones and set them on platforms along the coast. These people had sufficient technology to build these moai, some of which were double the size of the stones at Stonehenge and move them around the island. Then suddenly sometime in the 17th century, the civilization which had such cultural sophistication collapsed and the reason was attributed to the stone gods.
The word scholars used was ‘ecoside’, short for ecological suicide. The Rapa Nui exploited the natural resources so much that it bought about an ecological disaster. Since the islanders were manufacturing lots of large stone statues, they would need trees to move them, some as far as 9 miles. Cutting down trees for this purposes essentially deforested the island.
NARRATOR: The effect was devastating. Without trees the rains would have washed away their precious soil. Crops would have failed. There was no wood for canoes, so no more fish. And no canoes also meant no escape. The Easter Islanders were trapped in a hell of their own making. So they turned on each other and the gods who’d failed them.[The Mystery of Easter Island – transcript]
Thus the island which once looked the island on the TV show LOST, became barren. The oral tradition tells us of cannibalism, starvation and war.
The end of Rapa Nui was blamed on the Rapa Nui themselves and the lessons were used as warning to the current generation. But the end did not come due to the cutting down of trees, but due to other factors. The 2003 BBC program mentions it and it has been expanded in a new program which was telecast this year.
One of the first Westerners to reach Rapa Nui was the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen in 1722. He was on his way to Australia when he reached the islands. At that time the deforestation had already happened, but it did not look like a society which had gone through a civil war. People were happy and well nourished with crops of yams, sweet potatoes and sugar cane.
But that short visit had far reaching consequences. Roggeveen left diseases that destroyed the society and it was similar to what happened in the Americas following the arrival of the imperial land grabbers and gold miners in the 15th century. Fifty years later Captain Cook stopped by at Rapa Nui and then the seeds of the demise of the civilization were evident. There were signs of disease and malnourishment. Some of the statues were toppled over. Between the period between Roggeveen and Captain Cook, there were Spanish ships, whalers and merchants that arrived there and the islanders who had not interacted with Westerners before, could not handle their diseases.
Most of these Westerners did not have noble intentions. In 1805 an American ship Nancy appeared and kidnapped the Rapa Nui. Indentured laborers were gathered for South American mines and plantations and just in the year between 1862 and 1863, around 1500 Rapa Nui were kidnapped. Following the merchants, Christian missionaries (French Catholic) followed for destroying the culture.
In the 1700s, there used to be a tradition called ‘birdman’ which was a contest among the various chiefs. As part of the birdman festival, people would scramble down a rocky path to the beach, paddle through shark infested water to an islet and wait for the birds to arrive. Once he got an egg, the contestant had to swim back to Rapa Nui and climb up the wall to finish. If he survived the ordeal, the chief of that group could claim the birdman title. Following the arrival of the missionaries, this was put to an end and what modern day visitors see is St. Peter standing on top of the birdman iconography. By 1877, only 111 people living there. Within 150 years of European arrival, the Rapa Nui had been wiped off. It was not ecocide, but genocide.
Many of the previous theories have also been falsified. The terrible violence that was attributed to overpopulation and deforestation was found to be very minimal and there was no evidence for a full blown civil war. There was no evidence for cannibalism; those came just from the European narratives. There was even a statue found with ribs protruding to show that there was famine, but carbon dating proved that the statue was created much earlier and the protruding ribs were just part of the iconography. It has also been shown that the Rapa Nui may not have used tree rollers to move the statues, instead they may have used ropes to walk the statues which had center of gravities designed for this purpose.
Thus the cutting of the trees did not drive them into starvation. The deforestation started much earlier, probably from the 13th century. But the innovative farmers of Rapa Nui had learned to farm in caves and they also had an ocean full of fish. Thus it is no surprise that the Dutch found them healthy and well nourished.
With this new evidence, the pattern of destruction of a culture is the same that we have seen elsewhere in the world. The Spaniards, through Guns, Germs and Steel, destroyed the native civilizations. Americans used the concept of ‘Manifest Destiny’ to grab Native American land in the continental United States. In Hawaii, it was the missionaries who arrived first and soon they were followed by American businessmen who were involved in whaling and the cultivation of bananas, pineapples and sugarcane. Rapa Nui was annexed by Chile on 9 September 1888.