What we know—and still don’t know—about Easter Island

The Polynesian island has intrigued generations of Western explorers and scholars. But much of what they had previously assumed is wrong

In 1722, in a remote expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen squinted out from the deck of his flagship at a triangle of land sitting on the horizon. Roggeveen had set sail nearly a year earlier to explore the uncharted seas west of South America. His aim: to find the mythic Terra Australis Incognita, the ‘unknown land of the south’, and map a western trade route to the lucrative spice markets of Southeast Asia.

Rounding Cape Horn, his three ships spent nearly a month on the Juan Fernández Islands, over 400 miles off the coast of Chile. It was here that Alexander Selkirk, the marooned Royal Navy officer who inspired the story of Robinson Crusoe, had been found a decade earlier. The isolation was profound. On 17 March they set off again, this time into the vast expanses of the Pacific. Nearly three weeks and over 1,500 miles later, they sighted an island on Easter Sunday and duly named it Paasch-Eyland, or Easter Island.

Roggeveen and his crew observed as few as 2,000 inhabitants occupying a tract of land notably empty of trees and studded with imposing moai, the monolithic head-andtorso statues carved from stone blocks erected to face inland, away from the sea. Roggeveen was astonished: These stone figures caused us to be filled with wonder, for we could not understand how it was possible that people who are destitute of heavy or thick timber, and also of stout cordage, out of which to construct gear, had been able to erect them; nevertheless some of these statues were a good 30 feet in height and broad in proportion.

Subsequent visitors recorded as many as 900 moai across the island, over half of which remained mysteriously unfinished in the quarry. By the 1870s, as Western missionaries arrived, they found a population that had fallen to just over 100, barely surviving on the island’s sixty-three square miles. How could this barren island have provided a home for such an extraordinary civilisation? What cataclysm had befallen the moai’s ingenious sculptors?

These questions intrigued generations of Western explorers and scholars. John Linton Palmer – a Royal Navy surgeon on HMS Topaze, which, in 1868, stole the great Hoa Hakananai moai currently on display in the British Museum – thought the statues were ‘made by a race passed away’.

More recently, many scholars have posited that Polynesian explorers arrived around 800CE and began overexploiting its natural resources. Easter Island’s extreme isolation meant its inhabitants were entirely dependent on the island’s delicate ecosystem and natural resources, such as the thick forests of Paschalococos disperta, a native palm. Pollen analysis has shown that, by 1650, the Easter Island palm was extinct.

Evidence seemed to suggest that these trees were cleared to make way for agriculture and horticulture, to provide fuel for cooking, to build canoes, and to be used as rollers to move the moai from the quarry. Deforestation exacerbated soil erosion, impairing agricultural productivity, and overexploitation of land and sea birds drove a collapse in their populations. By around 1680, the inhabitants were reduced to burning grass and scraps of sugarcane for fuel, and had stopped building the moai. Environmental disaster soon graduated into social calamity. As the food ran out, the Rapa Nui’s political order was overthrown by violent military leaders and the island fell into civil war. As society collapsed, desperate survivors turned to cannibalism.

By 1722, Roggeveen found a population that had dwindled from around 15,000 to as little as 2,000. Over the course of a few generations, a crescendo of self-inflicted environmental destruction drove the complex, thriving society of Easter Island to starvation, civil war and cannibalism. Jared Diamond featured this tragic tale in his bestselling book Collapse, presenting it as ‘the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.’

This telling of the history of Easter Island purports to show a simple truth. Societies that fail to respect environmental limits are doomed to commit ‘ecocide’, blindly exploiting nature to the point of collapse – and taking themselves with it. In many ways, this theory of environmentally induced suicide has come to dominate, explicitly or implicitly, the mainstream narrative of what has driven us to the point of disaster.

But there is a problem with the ecocide narrative of Easter Island: it is untrue. Not only is this historically important, it also has profound implications for our contemporary understanding of environmental breakdown, and thus how we must act in the face of disaster. The real reason for the collapse of the Rapa Nui’s society can be traced back to Jacob Roggeveen’s voyage itself. A clue to what actually destroyed the island’s habitat lies in Roggeveen’s description of his landing: We marched forward a little . . . when, quite unexpectedly and to our great astonishment, four or five shots were heard in our rear, together with a vigorous shout of, ‘it’s time, it’s time, fire!’ On this, as in a moment, more than thirty shots were fired, and the Indians, being thereby amazed and scared, took to flight, leaving 10 or 12 dead, besides the wounded.”

This article is an extract from Planet on Fire and was originally published in Prospect Magazine.