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Easter Island’s history rewritten, previewing ours?

Posted on Dec 27, 2013

This post was inspired by this piece on NPR by Robert Krulwich detailing what happened on Easter Island – the old story and the supposed new story.  Twan and I independently read this and had the similar thought (I love when that happens) of it being a good follow-up to my recently posted entry on climate change. You can read in detail about Easter Island on NPR but essentially the old tale tells of the inhabitants spending hundreds of years destroying the tiny remote island’s environment in order to feed themselves and prosper only to be left in ruin when it was all gone, slowly dwindling away as the natural world did and as we would in the modern era if we were not careful and continued to disrespect it.

The new tale is more complex:

It comes from two anthropologists, Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, from the University of Hawaii. They say, “Rather than a case of abject failure,” what happened to the people on Easter Island “is an unlikely story of success.”

Krulwich goes on to describe the situation as written in their book, The Statues That Walked, that blames rats for the total destruction of the environment on Easter Island. These rats were of course brought by humans so there’s still enough blame to go around. But they weren’t without a, uh, benefit.

For one thing, they could eat rats. As J.B. MacKinnon reports in his new book, The Once and Future World, archeologists examined ancient garbage heaps on Easter Island looking for discarded bones and found “that 60 percent of the bones came from introduced rats.”

Sure sounds tasty to me. That was not the only dinner option on the menu or else it would have still been an unsurvivable situation.

What’s more, though the island hadn’t much water and its soil wasn’t rich, the islanders took stones, broke them into bits, and scattered them onto open fields creating an uneven surface. When wind blew in off the sea, the bumpy rocks produced more turbulent airflow, “releasing mineral nutrients in the rock,” J.B. MacKinnon says, which gave the soil just enough of a nutrient boost to support basic vegetables.

I don’t think I would have been able to figure that out if I was sitting on an island with nothing else but my survival to consider, and I have a college education and am from several centuries later in history than they were. Apparently their skeletal remains show them to have been in better physical condition than some Europeans of the same era (which is not saying much in some cases). However, the point remains they were able to adapt to extremely challenging conditions and sustain a population.

Lake Erie Luensman Overview Park

Lake Erie as seen from Luensman Overview Park. We have a tremendous magnitude of natural resources that need to be protected locally and a totally unknown number globally as we still do not fully understand our world as we destroy it.

Even if there are widespread losses in our current agricultural systems, homes in coastal population centers, infrastructure, and so forth, we as a species will in all likelihood survive and adapt to climate change. If we want to maintain the world as it is now…sorry, the ship has sailed on that front, and what is alive now is being literally chopped to pieces every day across the globe. If we want to keep a semblance of what we have we have to act very quickly to save it. Even if we are too late in acting to curb emissions and stop heating this planet before it begins a cycle we cannot stop we will come up with new ways in order to survive. No matter what happens there will likely be substantial losses in terms of life and property along the way. We should not accept this as fact, but we should also not believe in complete doom and gloom. I hope we can figure it out before we get to the point where we have nothing left of our world as we know it. What statues will we leave generations to come – those of the decaying ruins of our major cities as they are covered by our rising oceans?


Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation & Outreach Coordinator

Photo © Scott Kruitbosch