It’s always Easter on Easter Island, said nobody ever. Although truth be told, the name was coined by a Dutch explorer after landing on the island on Easter Sunday in 1722. He later went on to name nearby islands ‘Christmas’ and ‘Thanksgiving’ before realizing that he should spend more holidays at home with his wife and children. Yes, I’ll admit I might’ve stretched the truth a little. Obviously, everyone knows that there are no islands close to Easter Island.
What’s so special about Easter Island? Well, for one, it’s a volcanic island, formed by the peaks of three extinct volcanoes protruding above the surface of the Pacific Ocean. It’s more than 2000 km (1250 mi) away from the nearest island and 3500 km (2180 mi) away from the coast of South America. And although Easter Island doesn’t boast the giant turtles that serve as the Galapagos Islands’ claim to fame, it has something even better. Giant heads.
The statues, or moai as they are locally known, are relics of a civilization that thrived for centuries, but of which little remains today. The statues were sculpted to honor chiefs or ancestors, but with little of the islands’s history preserved, archaeologists and historians have been left to reconstruct the story of the culture and its downfall from limited evidence. The island’s story is a tragic tale that bears important lessons for societies today.
Easter Island was first settled between 300 and 1200 AD by Polynesians from distant Pacific Islands. The culture quickly flourished on the island paradise, reaching a peak of approximately 15,000 people by the 17th century. The archaeological record tells of tall trees, diverse land birds, and rich fishing grounds. But upon their arrival in 1722, Europeans found an island almost devoid of vegetation, with a population totaling no more than 3,000.
After 1722, things went from bad to worse. Tuberculosis and smallpox ravaged the island. Like with other Native American tribes and civilizations, a lack of previous exposure to these diseases made the island inhabitants particularly vulnerable. Raids by Peruvian slave traders also took their toll on a population with little ability to defend itself. By 1877, the total population of the island was a mere 111. Today, the island is a territory of Chile and has a population of almost 5,800.
Although the inhabitants of Easter Island were severely impacted by the diseases and slave raids of the 18th and early 19th century, it’s clear that the cogs of collapse had been set in motion decades before the arrival of the Europeans. So what drove this decline? Resource scarcity. As the island’s population prospered and grew, it reached and breached the limit of what the island’s resources could sustain. Overexploitation decimated the forests and drove many of the island’s bird species to extinction. Without large trees, the inhabitants were limited in their ability to build fishing boats or to sustain the scaffolding required to erect their monumental sculptures. By the 18th century, the population was largely landlocked, dependent on agriculture and chickens as their primary sources of food.
The idea of a maximum sustainable population is called carrying capacity and was originally suggested by Thomas Malthus in the late 18th Century. Malthus imagined these limitations to come in the form of food. He argued that population would always grow faster than food production, and thus the Earth would inevitably hit a point where food supply would not be able to sustain the population. While on a global scale the crisis that Malthus described was averted by the introduction of fertilizers and agricultural technologies, the fundamental premise remains. The social and environmental issues of the 21st Century – poverty, water scarcity, environmental degradation – can all be linked on some level to resource limitations. The story of Easter Island – a civilization isolated for centuries from the rest of the world – is a tragic testament to the destructive power of overpopulation and resource exploitation.
If you’ like to learn more about the history of Easter Island or the rise and collapse of other civilizations, I highly recommend Jared Diamond’s book Collapse. You can see a TED talk by Jared Diamond here.
And as always, be warned: you may have just sustained a lethal dose of mostly harmless science.
If you enjoyed this article, please comment below and share with your friends! I’d love for you to follow me on WordPress or on Twitter @harmlessscience (just click Follow on the right sidebar). Thanks for reading!
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.