A Famous Case of ‘Ecocide’ Gets Debunked
A historical thesis popularized by Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel, postulates that the tiny and remote Easter Island suffered a devastating ecological collapse as the result of poor stewardship of natural resources by its inhabitants. Diamond goes on to suggest this "ecocide" parallels our own global situation. But these claims have now been challenged by a pair of archaeologists working to investigate the real history of Easter Island.
In a new book titled The Statues That Walked, Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt argue that the story of the downfall of Easter Island as popularized in Diamond's 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is almost completely false. Collapse offers a series of metrics by which Diamond claims we can evaluate and predict when societies are likely to collapse. About half of his effort in Collapse is actually spent retrodicting (applying his views to historical situations) to demonstrate the connection between ecological stress and societal collapse. Perhaps the most striking example Diamond offers is the ecocide (ecological suicide) which transformed Easter Island from a dense tropical forest to a land barren of trees.
Diamond's case ties the destruction of the island's trees to the construction of the massive stone monuments for which the island is famous. He argues the inhabitants likely used up the trees in order to build ladder-like wooden roadways along which the multi-ton statues could be dragged. Once the trees were gone, there was no way to replenish them. In Diamond's telling, this ecological change led the various tribes which shared the island into factional warfare and, eventually, cannibalism. He concludes his recounting of Easter Island's history by suggesting it may be a harbinger of things to come:
The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter's dozen clans. Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space. When the Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, nor to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase. Those are the reasons why people see the collapse of Easter Island society as a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.
In the final section of his book, Diamond returns to Easter Island repeatedly as an example of destructive choices made to suit religious (or industrial) needs:
Religious values tend to be especially deeply held and hence frequent causes of disastrous behavior. For example, much of the deforestation of Easter Island had a religious motivation: to obtain logs to transport and erect the giant stone statues that were the object of veneration.
Diamond's book really amounts to a sustained argument for greater ecological awareness. He closes on a note of hope, because we have the ability to learn from past mistakes, including those on Easter Island. But Diamond's assessment of past mistakes have now been called into question. New research suggests there was no ecological collapse on Easter Island. No warfare. No cannibalism. There was deforestation and mankind certainly aided that over time but, in all probability, there was another culprit: destructive, tree-dwelling rats:
Everyone agrees that Easter Island was almost completely deforested by the time Europeans first visited in 1722. The key issue is causation...As the evidence shows and as we argued in our book, deforestation was a cumulative process that took centuries. It resulted from rat predation of seeds and from people using fire to clear vegetation for agriculture.
The authors of The Statues That Walked also undermine Diamond's central claim that Easter Island's religion and heavy industry (building giant statues) led to deforestation:
Diamond’s collapse thesis relies heavily on how the statues were moved. To sustain his thesis regarding the eventual “collapse” of the ancient society, he needs statue movement to be the “engine” that caused the loss of trees. Decouple the loss of trees from moving statues and the “collapse” story looses steam. Thus, we are not surprised that Diamond holds so tenaciously to old beliefs and discredited claims...
In recent experiments funded by National Geographic and fully filmed, we “walked” a multi-ton replica of an actual statue (one found along an ancient transport road). Moving a statue in a standing position is not only possible; it’s relatively easy and can be done with a small group of people using only ropes.
There is also new evidence that the society on Easter Island never devolved into warfare and cannibalism as Diamond claimed:
Diamond’s “preserved weapons,” the mata’a, are agricultural tools that he has chosen to describe as “weapons.” Their design alone, a rounded to irregular shape, should have been enough to make him question their purpose. But if he had read the microscopic studies reporting edge damage on thousands of these artifacts, he would have seen that the damage they show is consistent with their role in cutting and scrapping plant material (e.g., Church and Ellis 1994).
While Jared Diamond intended the "collapse" of Easter Island to be a warning of possible ecological collapse for our world, the authors of The Statues That Walked suggest an entirely different lesson which one might take from Diamond's misreading of the evidence:
rather than repeat assumptions and claims made in the past, we sought direct evidence with no preconceived ideas we needed to defend. In that frame of mind, what the evidence kept pointing to is that many of the “facts” offered up by so-called “experts” were simply claims repeated over and over and nothing more.
There was deforestation on Easter Island. That's a fact. But Diamond appears to have seen Easter Island as a useful ecological parable, rather than as an open archaeological question. That is an error we can all learn from.