Easter Island: Third Planet from the Sun


By Eric Mader


(The information in this article is mostly gleaned from Jared Diamond's excellent book Collapse.)


Americans, Chinese, Croats, Libyans, Venezuelans, and Swedes--are we all Easter Islanders? Everyone has seen images of the huge sculpted heads that litter the coasts of that isolated Pacific island, but few know the grim story behind those heads. Thanks to the work of archeologists and other researchers, we now understand that story better. It is one that should trouble us.


Easter Island's first European discoverer was a Dutch explorer named Jacob Roggeveen, who landed on the island in 1772. The island Roggeveen saw was more or less a wasteland, with a scanty population of Polynesians living there. What struck the explorer, and what he couldn't explain, were the massive stone statues scattered along the coasts, some as tall as five story buildings. Who had carved these statues and how had they moved and erected them? Roggeveen realized that even to budge such colossal stones would require strong ropes and, at the very least, some sort of wooden structure. But to make the fibers for such ropes and to make such structures one would need trees. The island had nothing on it but shrubs and grass.


The mystery of who erected the statues remained for centuries. One twentieth-century writer, Erich van Daniken, even proposed a theory of alien visitors. In any case, many investigators found it hard to believe that the Polynesians on the island, "mere savages," could have had anything to do with such beautiful and technically impressive works. We now know otherwise. The denuded landscape and impoverished villagers Roggeveen first saw were in fact all that remained of a culture that had collapsed centuries before. The story of this collapse is both instructive and frightening.



Statues left in the quarry Ranu Raraku on Easter Island.


Easter Island is one of the most isolated inhabited places on earth. Alone in the middle of the Pacific, 1,300 miles from the nearest land, it is surprising premodern humans ever discovered it. One might suppose that the Polynesians who settled Easter did so by accident. A fishing or trading party of canoes is blown off course by storm. Lost on the open sea, the fishermen nearly succumb to sun and thirst as the winds and currents carry them eastward. Finally, many days later, they spot land on the horizon. Putting ashore, the survivors become the first Easter Islanders.


In fact this supposition is wrong. The wind and currents would not have carried any party of canoes from the previously occupied Polynesian islands toward Easter. As the prevailing winds and currents move westerly, any Polynesian party that reached Easter was most likely sailing against them. But why?


The people who first landed on Easter were almost certainly explorers looking for land to settle. We can assume this because they brought sweet potatoes, taro, and sugarcane with them (crops grown by Easter Islanders but not native to the island) and also because there must have been women in those canoes, otherwise there would have been no one to give birth to the successive generations. 


The bravery of any such exploration party goes without saying. They set off in canoes on the open sea hoping to come upon land. To reach Easter from the nearest island would have taken between two and three weeks. If they hadn't found Easter, stranded as it is in the middle of the Pacific, they would have perished. We have no idea how many Polynesian exploration parties actually did perish on such ventures.


The Easter Islanders speak of their founder as one Hotu Matu'a. Archeology can tell us that he probably landed on the island some time in the 10th century. What was the island like when those first settlers arrived?


For one thing, the island was covered with forest. Hotu Matu'a and his people, disembarking on Easter's shores, saw the tallest palm trees they would ever have seen. Today the tallest palm species is the Chilean wine palm, which grows to a height of 65 feet. But scientists studying Easter Island's swamp sediments and fossils have determined that the island was home to a species of palm that grew much taller than that: the tallest palm species ever discovered. Now extinct, it was still on the island when Hotu Matu'a's party landed.


The settlers would also have noticed other species of tall trees, among them the tree Polynesians use to make canoes, and others useful for making rope and cloth fiber. These trees also no longer exist on Easter.


The island had many bird species as well: both land birds and at least 25 species of sea birds. By studying the garbage heaps of the areas first settled on the island, we can see that the first generations hunted these birds for food. Archeologists have determined that the main protein source for the islanders was not birds, however, but porpoises. This can be gleaned from the large number of porpoise bones scattered with other food refuse.


That the islanders ate porpoises proves that after arriving on Easter they continued to build large canoes and venture out into the sea. The porpoise species they hunted, the Common Dolphin, could reach a weight of 165 pounds. To hunt them the islanders had to paddle out far from shore.


Studying garbage heaps left by successive generations of Easter Islanders tells us much about their history. In the early periods, we find the bones of porpoises, birds, tuna, sea turtles--in short, evidence of a wide variety of protein sources. In the garbage heaps of 1500, however, i.e. five-hundred years after settlement, we find no more porpoises, no birds, and no deep sea fish. Instead there are rat bones, the remains of small shellfish, bones of smaller, shore-dwelling fish, and, finally, human bones--thrown into the garbage heap as food refuse. It is the diet of a people in desperation. 


When one considers these later garbage heaps, one has to ask: What happened to the porpoise meat and fowl? What of the larger fish caught on the open sea?  How is it the Easter Islanders had become cannibals? Did the birds and dolphins suddenly disappear?


The descent from plenty to starvation and finally cannibalism had to do, more than anything, with the land of Easter and the forests on that land. After arrival the settlers naturally began cutting trees in order to provide firewood, building materials and canoes. They also needed to clear some of the land in order to grow the crops they brought with them: the taro and sugarcane. Given the relatively healthy diet of the first settlers, the population began to grow, which in turn, naturally, led to further cutting of forests.


The Easter Islanders were hunting the bird species to extinction even as they destroyed the tree cover on which many of the species depended. With birds and forests disappearing steadily over the course of generations, we may ask ourselves if the islanders even noticed their environment was changing--that it was in fact being changed directly by them. 


The clearing of forests also led to exposure of the land, which led to erosion and finally depletion of soil. As Easter society developed, more of the farming was done on plots in the highlands, the harvested crops being transported down to the villages which were closer to the coasts.


The sixty-six square miles of the island was eventually divided into eleven separate territories, each belonging to its own clan. The clans were ruled by chiefs.  Based in part on the evidence of trade between territories, archeologists have determined that the clans lived in relative harmony for quite some time. Oddly, one of the things that brought about the collapse of Easter society was the erecting of the statues for which the island is now so well known.


The stone statues we see on Easter were meant to represent the ancestors of clan chiefs. We can thus be certain they were commissioned by these chiefs. Carved by work teams in a quarry called Rano Raraku, the statues, once finished, were transported to the site on the coast where they would be raised up on platforms, one platform typically holding many statues. In order to reach the designated platforms, some of these stone statues (weighing up to 75 tons) had to be dragged over land as far as nine miles. 


We can presume that each chief sent his own team of workers to Rano Raraku to carve the statues he commissioned, and also that each chief called upon the manpower of his own clan to move and erect a statue once it had been carved. But how did the islanders accomplish this moving? We don't know for sure, as there is no one living who has ever witnessed it. The best theory is that the islanders adapted a technique used by Polynesians elsewhere in the Pacific to move their canoes over land for launch. Carved from a single log at the site where the tree was felled, a canoe, sometimes weighing more than the average Easter Island statue, would be moved toward shore across a ladder-like structure. Jared Diamond and others assume that the Easter Islanders moved their stone statues using the same general technique.




Seeing photos of the statues with people next to them gives a better idea of their massive size.


Experiments have proven that 60 people, working five hours a day and heaving in unison ("1, 2, 3, pull. . . . 1, 2, 3, pull"), could move a 12-ton statue nine miles in a week. Grueling work, the statues could nonetheless be moved.


What should be noticed is that in order to transport statues quite a lot of rope, and, again, quite a lot of wood for the slide ladder is necessary. Trees will have to be cut.


Given that the statues erected by Easter's chiefs became larger and more elaborate over time, it seems obvious that the chiefs began to consider the number and size of their statues to be crucial to their status. The chiefs were competing with each other via the erecting of statues. One of the last statues erected on Easter, named Paro, is also one of the largest, weighing in at 75 tons. Diamond writes of a statue still lying in the quarry that is four times as large as Paro and that could never have been moved to the coast in any case: it is far too heavy. One can imagine a megalomaniacal chief ordering this statue carved and brushing aside questions about how it was ever going to be moved. One can also imagine the proud chiefs indifferent to the cutting down of trees: "What does cutting down trees matter when my status is at issue?" Diamond wonders what the Easter Islanders were thinking as they cut down their last trees.


As [researcher] Catherine Orliac expressed it, "Why destroy a forest that one needs for . . . material and spiritual survival?" This is indeed a key question, one that has nagged not only Catherine Orliac but also my University of California students, me, and everyone else who has wondered about self-inflicted environmental damage. I have often asked myself, "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" Like modern loggers, did he shout "Jobs, not trees!"? Or: "Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we'll find a substitute for wood"? Or: "We don't have proof that there aren't palm somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering"? (114)


Deforestation began on Easter soon after the settlers' arrival and reached a peak in the 1400s. The island's last trees were cut down some time in the 1600s. With no large trees to make seaworthy canoes, the population had inadvertently cut off their main source of protein: the porpoises they previously hunted on the open seas. From then on any fish or other seafood had to come from close to shore. The islanders began more and more to scavenge for mussels and other shellfish, but here again they were doing themselves in. Selecting for the larger shellfish on their scavenges, they ensured that only smaller individuals survived to breed, thus over time the mussels in their diet became smaller and smaller.


We can't be sure what set off the wars and cannibalism, but it isn't hard to guess. Increasingly hungry populations in the eleven chiefdoms would become increasingly grasping for anything that might be left to plunder on neighboring territory. Chiefs running of out of trees to provide wooden slides for their statues would lose status and patience as they watched neighboring chiefs transporting their own oversized statues. With no trees left to make new canoes, the last usable open-sea canoe would have allowed whatever clan possessed it to bring back porpoise meat, an impossible luxury that would infuriate neighbors who couldn't themselves hunt porpoise because of the lack of wood.


Eventually the social order of the chiefs was overthrown by a new class of military leaders, and even the religious culture of the old order was replaced by a new cult, called the Birdman cult. Bitter enemies of their neighbors, and starving besides, the islanders began to consider these neighbors a legitimate food source. Into modern times there still survives an insult in the Easter Island language, an expression that got its origin in the grim centuries of war: "Your mother's flesh still sticks between my teeth."


Having dedicated centuries to carving, moving and erecting their magnificent statues, the islanders now focused on toppling them. Once an invading party had overrun an enemy village, the invaders would go to the statue platform and push the statues over onto a large rock placed so as to break them at the neck. When Captain Cook visited the island in 1774, he wrote of statues still standing and of others thrown down. The islanders had still not finished with their feuding.  Diamond writes:


The last European mention of an erect statue was in 1838; none was reported as standing in 1868. Traditions relate that the final statue to be toppled (around 1840) was Paro, supposedly erected by a woman in honor of her husband, and thrown down by enemies of her family so as to break Paro at mid-body. (110)


On Captain Cook's visit, he described the Easter Islanders as "small, lean, timid and miserable." A French captain in 1838 writes how a group of islanders, in two-man leaky canoes, rowed out to his ship to trade: "All the natives repeated often and excitedly the word miru and became impatient because they saw that we did not understand it: this word is the name of the timber used by Polynesians to make their canoes. This was what they wanted most, and they used every means to make us understand this." (107) By that time it had already been perhaps 200 years since such trees had grown on the island. The islanders still knew well enough what they lacked.


Many researchers think the story of Easter Island may provide a frightening mirror in which to view our current global culture. We may be swiftly and heedlessly doing ourselves in just as the Easter Islanders did. There are several reasons to take the comparison seriously.


First, we should not be lulled into a false confidence because of our technological superiority over the traditional Easter Islanders. We may look back at them and smirk at how foolish they were to kill their last remaining land birds or destroy their last remaining trees, but we ourselves, regardless of our advanced science and technology, are doing nearly the same thing. Though warned by researchers that our essential resources are running out, we do nothing significant to launch replacement technologies (such as for oil), police overharvesting (such as for the seas' fishes), or stop the destruction of land (one may think of the Amazon or of the land ruined each year by overdevelopment or logging). We fall back on the excuse of the need to maintain a robust economy, even though much of this economy is a matter of harmful luxuries (such as SUVs or the oversized homes we must heat or air-condition year-round). Needless to say, the luxuries we consider non-negotiable are largely a matter of our social status (again our vehicles, or our dwellings), just as the lugging and setting up of statues was a matter of the Easter chiefs' status. In terms of our environment, we in the modern capitalist world are living much the same way the Easter chiefs did.


Thus we see a crash coming, but don't begin the work of preparing for it. We do nothing to ensure the next generations will be able to survive it with anything like the lifestyles we enjoy. It was the same with the Easter Islanders cutting their forests.


A second factor that should frighten us as regards Easter Island's dismal history is the obvious role population growth played in the collapse. From the work of researchers, we learn that the population of the island continued to grow for as long as there were resources to exploit. But those resources were not being managed, so population eventually outstripped resources, which resulted in war, starvation, political upheaval, and finally an entirely different kind of society: cannibalistic, poor, miserable. 


Earth's population first reached 1 billion around 1800. By 1950, that figure had more than doubled, to 2.5 billion. It has now more than doubled again, as it is estimated that we are now at around 6.6 billion people. Our planet currently holds more than six times as many people as it did in 1800. If the present rate of increase holds, we will add another 2.3 billion people in the next half century.


Considering that our species has existed now for around 200,000 years, these figures mean that it took humans 199,800 years to reach 1 billion, but that in the recent 200 years we've multiplied that number times six. Looked at in terms of human history, then, the current world population is by no means normal: it is extraordinary, staggering. We live in the middle of an explosion that will most likely prove unsustainable, no matter what our technologies might accomplish.



Is it possible that at some future date our city skylines will stand as hulking ruins--evidence for

 some future visitor of the vanity of the civilization that built them?


A third factor, one related to the previous, is what we might consider the deceptive or lulling effect of generational time. Just as I can now walk through a park on a quiet afternoon and not be reminded of the fact that I'm part of an unprecedented population upheaval (people aren't literally springing up out of the ground or falling from trees after all), so in the course of my life I might not notice how the natural environment is being changed: the changes may be too slow to rouse my attention. One can imagine how this happened for the early generations on Easter. A father to his son: "Those red-crested birds are good for cooking, but there seem fewer of them around than there used to be." So the son gets the idea that red-crested birds are a rarity. Years later when he's out hunting with this own son, the species has become extinct. But he forgets to mention to his son that there ever were such red-crested birds. In this way, after only a handful of generations, it might seem "normal" that the island has only two or three bird species on it. And those few remaining species are being hunted out too. What seem like slow changes in environment because of the slow passing of human time might actually be, in terms of the integrity of the ecosystem, devastatingly fast changes. If an island with thirty species of birds loses one every fifteen years, it isn't long before there are no birds left.


We can consider the same lulling effect of generational time in relation to Easter's forests. Islanders growing up in the 1300s looked out over their island and probably thought what they saw was "normal," that their island had always looked like that: mostly open land with a few forested areas. It wouldn't have occurred to them in 1300 that what they were looking at was an artificially depleted landscape and that they, as a people, were already on the brink. They couldn't have guessed that because of their way of living ("We just do as we've always done") their grandchildren would go hungry and their great-grandchildren would fall into barbarism: raiding each others' villages and eating each other.


Biologists estimate that the world's species are currently going extinct at a rate of 100 to 1000 times normal. Whatever the correct figure is, we are in the middle of a human-caused mass extinction, one, moreover, that is moving at breakneck pace, possibly ten times the speed of any mass extinction in the history of the planet, including the one that brought the demise of the dinosaurs. 


We see the world exploding in population, resources (energy, fresh water, arable land) being tallied up as to how much might be left of each, but since this discussion has gone on for decades we just consider it part of the "political" landscape: environmental problems are mainly a "liberal" issue and there is a lot of "uncertain science" about it anyhow. In truth, the science on many of these points is not uncertain, and the question of "liberal" versus "conservative" shouldn't enter into it. If we detected a massive asteroid coming towards Earth, one that if it hit would kill three-quarters of humanity, would the issue of deflecting it be a "liberal" or "conservative" one?


Finally, Easter Island may be a suitable mirror for us by the very fact of its isolation in the middle of the Pacific. As indicated above, Easter is 1,300 miles from the nearest land. When the islanders began to run out of necessary resources, there was no one they could go to for  help. There was also nowhere they could move once their island had become a wasteland. It is the same with the planet Earth. It is a tiny bluish dot isolated in space. If we push it to the brink, there will be nowhere to turn.


October, 2007



A Personal Note on the NRDC


What can we do then to begin the task of preserving what remains and preparing for the day of reckoning which is almost certain to arrive? There's much debate on this, of course, but one thing nearly everyone concerned with the environment agrees upon is that governments have not yet even begun to formulate and impose the difficult policies we need. This is because, finally, these policies are truly difficult: they would require government to do much more to regulate both industries and individuals, since both the corporate giants and the average Joe are now living in ways that make our future impossible.


One way to give some push to the movement toward a more sustainable society is to support one of the environmental organizations. For Americans like myself, this kind of support can have particular impact, because our country is not only one of the world's major consumers/polluters but is also, in terms of environmental protection, quite a ways behind many other developed countries. We have, especially in recent years, set a bad example. 


Of environmental organizations active in the States, I've chosen to support the Natural Resources Defense Council. With their methodical and indefatigable approach, they're accomplishing the most in the area I consider most important: i.e., they're forcing government to enact meaningful environmental policy. Given the Bush Administration's concerted efforts to undo American environmental protections one law at a time, the NRDC's work has been crucial. Their lawyers have fought the legal battles that matter. They've saved many a plot of land and many a lake from destruction or pollution, and they are also a leader in the effort to promote renewable energy.


Here are some quotes on the NRDC and their approach:


The New York Times:

"One of the nation's most powerful environmental groups."


The Wall Street Journal:

"NRDC is by many accounts, the most effective lobbying and litigating group on environmental issues."


U.S. News & World Report:

"NRDC's lawyers are said by eco-observers to know more about environmental law than the government does."


Eco Magazine:

"By almost any measure, the most influential national environmental organization is NRDC."


San Francisco Chronicle:

"NRDC is one of the most effective environmental litigators on the globe."


The National Journal:

"A credible and forceful advocate for stringent environmental protection; you'd like NRDC on your side if you wanted the federal government to do something on a major policy matter . . ."


The Washington Monthly:

"When an environmental cause needs first-class legal representation, it turns to NRDC."


The Wall Street Journal:

"It's hard to find a major environmental law it hasn't helped shape within Congress, the courts and federal agencies."


If you want to join or support the NRDC, go to their home page:




The NRDC as presented at Wikipedia:






Check Jared Diamond's *Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed* at Amazon.com




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