Skip to comments.Easter Island, Fools' Paradise
Posted on 11/21/2004 12:48:29 PM PST by blam
Easter island, fools' paradise
18 November 2004
The greatest wonder of the ancient world is how recent it all is. No city or monument is much more than 5,000 years old. Only about seventy lifetimes, of seventy years, have been lived end to end since civilization began. Its entire run occupies a mere 0.002 per cent of the nearly 3 million years since our first ancestor sharpened a stone. The progress of man the hunter during the Old Stone Age, or Palaeolithic his perfection of weapons and techniques led directly to the end of hunting as a way of life. The big game was all but exterminated, except in a few places where conditions favoured the prey. Next came the discovery of farming most likely by women during the New Stone Age, or Neolithic, in several parts of the world. And from that grew the experiment of worldwide civilization, which began as many independent enterprises but over the last few centuries has coalesced, mainly by hostile takeover, into one big system that covers and consumes the Earth.
Not all past civilizations fell because of plague or conquest; many collapsed internally, victims of their own success, after wearing out their welcome from the natural world. The wrecks of these failed experiments lie in deserts and jungles like fallen airliners whose flight recorders can tell us what went wrong. They are no longer of merely antiquarian interest. Civilization is now expanding at such a pace, and on such a scale, that we must understand its inherent patterns and dangers.
Archaeology is perhaps the best tool we have for doing so, for answering Gauguins questions: what we are, where we have come from, and where we are likely to be going. Unlike written history, which is often highly edited, archaeology uncovers the deeds we have forgotten, or have chosen to forget. It also offers a much longer reading of the direction and momentum of the human course through time. A realistic understanding of the past is quite a new thing, a late fruit of the Enlightenment, although people of many times have felt the tug of what the Elizabethan antiquarian, William Camden, called the back-looking curiousity. Antiquity, he wrote, hath a certaine resemblance with eternity. [It] is a sweet food of the mind.
Not everyones mind was so open in his day. An early Spanish viceroy of Peru who had just seen the Inca capital high in the Andes, with its walls of megaliths fitted like gems, wrote back to his king: I have examined the fortress that [the Incas] built . . . which shows clearly the work of the Devil . . . for it does not seem possible that the strength and skill of men could have made it. Even today, some opt for the comforts of mystification, preferring to believe that the wonders of the ancient world were built by Atlanteans, gods, or space travellers, instead of by thousands toiling in the sun. Such thinking robs our forerunners of their due, and us of their experience. Because then one can believe whatever one likes about the past without having to confront the bones, potsherds and inscriptions which tell us that people all over the world, time and again, have made similar advances and mistakes.
About two centuries after the Spanish invasion of Peru, a Dutch fleet in the South Seas far to the west of Chile and below the Tropic of Capricorn came upon a sight hardly less awesome, and even more inexplicable, than the megalithic buildings of the Andes. On Easter Day 1722, the Dutchmen sighted an unknown island so treeless and eroded that they mistook its barren hills for dunes. They were amazed, as they drew near, to see hundreds of standing stone images as tall as Amsterdam houses. We could not comprehend how it was possible that these people, who are devoid of heavy thick timber [or] strong ropes, nevertheless had been able to erect such images, which were fully thirty feet high.
Captain Cook later confirmed the islands desolation, finding: no wood for fuel; nor any fresh water worth taking on board. He described the islanders tiny canoes, made from scraps of driftwood stitched together like shoe-leather, as the worst in the Pacific. Nature, he concluded, had been exceedingly sparing of her favours to this spot. The great mystery of Easter Island that struck all early visitors was not just that these colossal statues stood in such a tiny and remote corner of the world, but that the stones seemed to have been put there without tackle, as if set down from the sky. The Spaniard who attributed the marvels of Inca architecture to the Devil was merely unable to recognize another cultures achievements. But even scientific observers could not, at first, account for the megaliths of Easter Island. The figures stood there mockingly, defying common sense.
We now know the answer to the riddle, and it is a chilling one. Pace Captain Cook, nature had not been unusually stingy with her favours. Pollen studies of the islands crater lakes have shown that it was once well watered and green, with rich volcanic soil supporting thick woods of the Chilean wine palm, a fine timber that can grow as tall as an oak. No natural disaster had changed that: no eruption, drought, or disease. The catastrophe on Easter Island was man. Rapa Nui, as Polynesians call the place, was settled during the fifth century ad by migrants from the Marquesas or the Gambiers, arriving in big catamarans stocked with their usual range of crops and animals: dogs, chickens, edible rats, sugar cane, bananas, sweet potatoes, and mulberry for making bark-cloth. (Thor Heyerdahls theory that the island was peopled from South America has not been supported by recent work, though sporadic contact between Peru and Oceania probably did take place.) Easter Island proved too cold for breadfruit and coconut palms, but was rich in seafood: fish, seals, porpoises, turtles, and nesting seabirds. Within five or six centuries, the settlers multiplied to about 10,000 people a lot for sixty-four square miles. They built villages with good houses on stone footings, and cleared all the best land for fields. Socially they split into clans and ranks nobles, priests, commoners and there may have been a paramount chief or king.
Like Polynesians on some other islands, each clan began to honour its ancestry with impressive stone images. These were hewn from the yielding volcanic tuff of a crater and set up on platforms by the shore. As time went on, the statue cult became increasingly rivalrous and extravagant, reaching its apogee during Europes high Middle Ages, while the Plantagenet kings ruled England. Each generation of images grew bigger than the last, demanding more timber, rope, and manpower for hauling to the ahu, or altars. Trees were cut down faster than they could grow, a problem worsened by the settlers rats, who ate the seeds and saplings. By ad 1400, no more tree pollen is found in the annual strata of the crater lakes: the woods had been utterly destroyed by both the largest and the smallest mammal on the island.
We might think that in such a limited place where, from the height of Terevaka, islanders could survey their whole world at a glance, steps would have been taken to halt the cutting, to protect the saplings, to replant. We might think that as trees became scarce, the erection of statues would have been curtailed, and timber reserved for essential purposes such as boatbuilding and roofing. But that is not what happened. The people who felled the last tree could see it was the last, could know with complete certainty that there would never be another. And they felled it anyway.
All shade vanished from the land except the hard-edged shadows cast by the petrified ancestors, whom the people loved all the more because they made them feel less alone. For a generation or so there was enough old lumber to haul the great stones and still keep a few canoes seaworthy for deep water. But the day came when the last good boat was gone. The people then knew there would be little seafood and worse no way of escape. The word for wood, rakau, became the dearest in their language. Wars broke out over ancient planks and worm-eaten bits of jetsam. They ate all their dogs, and nearly all the nesting birds; and the unbearable stillness of the place deepened with animal silences. There was nothing left now but the moai, the stone giants who had devoured the land. And still these promised the return of plenty if only the people would keep faith and honour them with increase.
But how will we take you to the altars? asked the carvers, and the moai answered that when the time came they would walk there on their own. So the sound of hammering still rang from the quarries, and the crater walls came alive with hundreds of new giants, growing even bigger now they had no need of human transport. The tallest ever set on an altar is over 30 feet high and weighs 80 tons; the tallest ever carved is 65 feet and weighs more than 200 tons, comparable to the greatest stones worked by the Incas or Egyptians. Except, of course, that it never moved an inch.
By the end there were more than 1,000 moai, one for every ten islanders in their heyday. But the good days were gone gone with the good earth, which had been carried away on the endless wind and washed by flash floods into the sea. The people had been seduced by a kind of progress that becomes a mania, an ideological pathology as some anthropologists call it. When Europeans arrived in the eighteenth century the worst was over; they found only one or two living souls per statue, a sorry remnant, small, lean, timid and miserable, in Cooks words. Now without roof beams, many people were dwelling in caves; their only buildings were stone hen-houses where they guarded this last non-human protein from each other day and night. The Europeans heard tales of how the warrior class had taken power, how the island had convulsed with burning villages, gory battles and cannibal feasts. The one innovation of this end-period was to turn the use of obsidian (a razor-keen volcanic glass) from toolmaking to weapons. Daggers and spearheads became the commonest artefacts on the island, hoarded in pits like the grenades and assault rifles kept by modern-day survivalists. Even this was not quite the nadir. Between the Dutch visit of 1722 and Cooks fifty years later, the people again made war on each other and, for the first time, on the ancestors as well. Cook found moai toppled from their platforms, cracked and beheaded, the ruins littered with human bones.
There is no reliable account of how or why this happened. Perhaps it started as the ultimate atrocity between enemy clans, like European nations bombing cathedrals in the Second World War. Perhaps it began with the shattering of the islands solitude by strangers in floating castles of unimaginable wealth and menace. These possessors of wood were also bringers of death and disease. Scuffles with sailors often ended with natives gunned down on the beach.
We do not know exactly what promises had been made by the demanding moai to the people, but it seems likely that the arrival of an outside world might have exposed certain illusions of the statue cult, replacing compulsive belief with equally compulsive disenchantment. Whatever its animus, the destruction on Rapa Nui raged for at least seventy years. Each foreign ship saw fewer upright statues, until not one giant was left standing on its altar. (Those standing today have been restored.) The work of demolition must have been extremely arduous for the few descendants of the builders. Its thoroughness and deliberation speak of something deeper than clan warfare: of a people angry at their reckless fathers, a revolt against the dead.
The lesson that Rapa Nui holds for our world has not gone unremarked. In the epilogue to their 1992 book, Easter Island, Earth Island, the archaeologists Paul Bahn and John Flenley are explicit. The islanders, they write,
"carried out for us the experiment of permitting unrestricted population growth, profligate use of resources, destruction of the environment and boundless confidence in their religion to take care of the future. The result was an ecological disaster leading to a population crash . . . . Do we have to repeat the experiment on [a] grand scale? . . . Is the human personality always the same as that of the person who felled the last tree?"
Easter Island is a microcosmic example of environmental and ecological mismanagement in a bottle. Even when the island was facing irreversable deforestation, the native people insisted on cutting down trees to transport their precious carved statue thingies to please the gods. All they got in return was a wasteland with no vegetation or topsoil. Even the efforts of the bird-man cult couldn't reverse the irreversable.
sounds like Haiti.
Yeah, good comparison, except the Haitians aren't even making creepy-cool giant heads. No trees equals no topsoil equals no life. What the anti-US greens don't tell you is that there are more trees in the US now than when the pilgrims landed.
A classic cautionary tale. Not enough is known about the social dynamics to place definitive blame. A "tragedy of the commons" could well have been to blame, with the trees up for grabs by the fastest cutters. Who knows if private property rights could have protected the increasingly valuable forests?
Re"The greatest wonder of the ancient world is how recent it all is. No city or monument is much more than 5,000 years old. Only about seventy lifetimes, of seventy years,"
This entire article depends on the notion that we are in fact doing what the Easter Islanders did. I do not buy that. We have more forestation. We are producing not only more food, but more food per person, than ever before.
The fundamental problem with the enviro-nazis is that they do not recognize that it is economic advancement that protects the environment. It is not a surprise that the US environment is better than Brazil's, or Europe's is better than China's.
Exactly. Private property versus common-hold land must be examined.
Farming. Man harnessing nature rather than being at its whims.
Tragedy of the commons BUMP for later reading.
It seems that civilizations whose religious beliefs are useful will flourish, while those with pernicious beliefs will not.
Of course, this dichotomy does not speak to whether any particular beliefs are true or not, only whether they are useful.
We call the Easter Islander's understanding of the universe "religion" but call our understanding of the universe "science", "democracy", "enlightenment", and "truth". Either, and both, understandings are as much "religion" as any other.
Is not the American Liberal delusion "religious"? Is "rationality" ever an appropriate description of humans? Shoot, I watch folks "chop down the last tree" figuratively all of the time. Humans value their delusions very much more than even their children's lives.
Ain't gonna change.
That is just strange.
In Rapa nui there was no ownership of the trees. It was to no individual's benefit to plant trees as they could be cut down by domeone else.
Americans have learned from many of our mistakes. My father, born in 1924, remembered when the great forests of East Texas were nearly wiped out - there was nothing left but clear-cut fields. He raised me to never fell a tree unless there was a need. Part of that was our Native American heritage, but part of it was just common sense. Tree equals soil equals life.
Now East Texas is a forest once again - and by the time my father died, he was able to fell a tree in that forest and know it would still live on in saplings he helped cultivate.
We have learned much. Private American landowners, given the freedom and means to do so, are better stewards of the land than many who preceded them.
It was not agriculture that brought about "civilization" but instead, I gather from long reading on this subject, the development of fortifications impregnable in their day.
The older farming communities, before about 4,000 BC, could not protect themselves from human predation. Either give the brigands whatever they demanded or be burned out. In all cases the old towns from that era showed repeated invasion and destruction by fire. Tax collectors, I suppose.
The basic reality is that it is much easier to have somebody else cultivate crops with a wooden hoe than do it yourself. Then the first effective stone walls hit the scene.
Great book...won't happen here...Jesus will be back long before then...