Myth-busting archaeologist Carl Lipo has dealt another blow to the idea that indigenous Easter Islanders committed "ecocide" in the 19th Century.
The idea, fashionable with Western environmentalists, posits that the Polynesian natives deforested Rapa Nui, thus leading to cultural and economic collapse. Easter Island is denuded today because the islanders were fighting.
The theory was popularised first in a magazine article by pop science writer Jared Diamond, who asked:
As we try to imagine the decline of Easter’s civilization, we ask ourselves, Why didn’t they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree. By now the meaning of Easter Island for us should be chillingly obvious. Easter Island is Earth writ small.
He repeated the idea in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. For Diamond, “the history of Easter Island is as close as we can get to a ‘pure’ ecological collapse.”
But it was a story of convenience. Diamond needed a tale of ecological collapse, and projected it onto Rapa Nui. It suited the grim, determinist thrust of his book, in which technology and materials shape people, who don’t have the brains or the agency to shape the technology or the material.
Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt’s 2011 book The Statues that Walked dealt the theory several blows. The Polynesians were expert maritime migrants. There was no evidence they were primitive Jeremy Clarksons. The Rapa Nui islanders had mastered a form of writing, while its population grew until Western contact introduced rats and disease. The rats were very bad news for the trees. A growing body of work has subsequently given an account that's quite divergent from that of Diamond, and now there’s another.
In a new paper published in Archaelogy Lipo, Hunt et al point out that the “preserved weapons” or mata’a found in abundance on the island aren’t actually weapons, but were agricultural tools.
“Easter Island was a story of remarkable success. And as young Native Islanders have told us, knowledge of their ancestors’ success, not failure, matters greatly to them. The ‘collapse’ story for Easter Island is a convenient and popular parable used for shocking the public about the dangers of over-exuberance and environmental disregard,” Lipo and Hunt wrote in 2011. “However, as we describe in our book, the island’s collapse came only with the germs, guns, and enslavement brought by the outside world. Given what is at stake in terms of lessons to be learned about long-term survival on an isolated and resource poor location, the truth matters.”
Just under 3,000 people live on Rapa Nui today. ®
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