Thoughts as we leave Easter Island.
The Dutch claimed to have discovered Easter Island in 1722. They named it due to the day it was discovered, Easter, a Christian celebration of rebirth. The Island’s Christian given name is emblematic of its history and ecology.
The population of Easter Island declined from an estimated 20,000 Rapanui, prior to its “discovery” by the Dutch in 1722, to only 111 by the 1870s. While the Dutch recorded a robust, hearty people when they initially came ashore, by the time Captain Cook visited the island in 1774, something had drastically changed and the Rapanui were thin and sickly and much fewer in numbers than the previous report had noted. Additionally, most of the upright monuments had been overturned and destroyed and there were very few trees. What happened? Why did the population die out so suddenly? What happened to the forests?
Although the usual suspects of typhoid, smallpox, and leprosy were later brought to the island by Europeans in the 19th century, the real culprit in this disaster was the lack of ecological practices by the indigenous people themselves. Through internecine warfare (hard to imagine on a small 45 square mile speck of land) and deforestation that, in turn, caused massive erosion, the carrying capacity of the land was outstripped by the declining population in an ever increasing and deadly downward spiral.
Eventually, the food supply was so minimal that the Rapanui resorted to cannibalism. One of the archeological after effects of such a disaster was the tipping over and destruction of the 887 mammoth monuments that Easter Island is so famous for as one tribe destroyed the symbols of its defeated foe. Thus, Easter Island has been described by archeologists and environmentalists (see Jared Diamond’sCollapse) as the world’s first self-contained ecological disaster.
On a side note to illustrate the further decimation of the Rapanui at the hands of European interlopers, in 1862 the Peruvians came to the island in search of slaves. They captured 1000 Rapanui including the king and most of the learned class and hauled them off to Peru to work as slaves in the guano mines. While in Peru 900 of the people died. Pressured by the church and other 19th century NGOs, the Peruvians brought the 100 people who survived slavery and disease back to the island. In route 85 died. Eventually, fifteen out of the original 1000 captured made it back to their homeland. However, they had no idea they would bring the death of the white man with them, a deadly little gift of smallpox.
Finally, to complete our story up to the present day, in 1888 Chile flexed its massive military muscle and took over the island as a prize for winning the “War of the Pacific” with its equally militaristic South American neighbors. In effect, Chile wanted the island as a naval base and then discovered it didn’t have a natural deep harbor conducive for naval bases. So go the vagaries of history…
But we return to our initial issue of ecological destruction and its effects on a population. What does this mean for our modern world? Is the Easter Island disaster a precursor of what may happen to the earth as a whole, if people continue to abuse one another and the earth which provides for our lives, if Mother Earth is not paid her due? Can what happened to the Rapanui on a small scale happen to us on a much larger one? Only time and our respect (or disrespect) for Mother Earth will tell…