Easter Island – a lesson from the past

“In just a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism. Are we about to follow their lead?”

So begins a fantastic article that draws on pollen analysis techniques to determine the history of Easter Island and asks whether we are doomed to extinct ourselves, the way that the inhabitants of Easter Island did when they consumed the entirety of their available resources. It’s a great read which I will summarise here.

Easter Island is devoid of trees, which would have been required to construct and move the standing stone statues the island is famous for. Not to mention the sea worthy boats that must have been available to the Polynesian population for them to hunt the dolphins that archaeological evidence shows was a mainstay of their diet.

“Pollen records show that destruction of Easter’s forests was well under way by the year 800, just a few centuries after the start of human settlement. Then charcoal from wood fires came to fill the sediment cores, while pollen of palms and other trees and woody shrubs decreased or disappeared, and pollen of the grasses that replaced the forest became more abundant.”

It took only a couple of centuries for the humans to start to stamp their imprint on the subtropical forest that dominated the island. With the forests dwindling, so did the indigenous birds which were also a staple source of food. Within a thousand years, with the whole forest gone, suddenly porpoise bones disappeared from the rubbish heaps: the islanders had lost the ability to build the seafaring canoes they needed to hunt them with.

In desperation, they turned to last remaining abundant meat source: human meat. Cannibalism is evident not only in the oral traditions and history of the people (with insults like: “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth!”), but also from archaeological evidence of human bones in garbage heaps.

It’s a simple story in the end. They landed in a subtropical paradise and prospered. A complex society flourished and consumed the finite resources at an unsustainable rate. Eventually natural resources failed and food supplies were compromised. Society fell apart and the islanders fell upon each other.

It’s easy to look at the situation from the comfort of your chair and say: “That would never happen now. We’d never cut down the last tree or kill the last pair of birds.” But it is happening, right now. Unsustainable fishing of fish stocks? A society and economy that’s utterly based on finite oil? Destruction of rainforests at a rate measure each year in the area of land of small countries? Even on a basic fiscal level, Western governments aren’t even able to spend within their means provided by their tax receipts. If we can’t do a simple thing like balance the books, how can we balance the needs of the planet’s ecology?

If we don’t heed the lessons of history, we’re doomed to follow in their footsteps.

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