One Easter and 63 Square Miles…
There’s a small island in the South Pacific about 2,300 miles from Chile’s west coast and 2,500 miles east of Tahiti that was known to its earliest inhabitants as Rapa Nui. But in 1722 Dutch explorers named this place Easter Island in honor of the day they first arrived. As I read about the history of this piece of land measuring about 63 square miles (that’s not quite as large as Wisconsin at about 65.5 square miles), the main focus seems to be those mysterious stone statues with large heads called Moai. Why were they built, and how on earth did those people move them all over the island? Today, Easter Island is known for those nearly 900 statues and the tourism they inspire.
But let’s step back for a moment to its beginning. The island was sub-tropical and covered with millions of palm trees, some nearly 100 feet high. It was also full of nesting seabirds and land birds. Even though the soil was low in nutrients, it was still good for growing yams, sweet potatoes, and other crops the people brought with them. The environment adequately provided for those who lived there. But 500 years later when the Dutch arrived, there were no trees higher than 10 feet to be found, and the islanders were gaunt and disorganized according to reports. Some say these first settlers as farmers practiced “slash-and-burn” agriculture, and it was this activity of deforestastion that led to the demise of those living there. Jared Diamond states in his book, Collapse, that Easter Island is the “clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by over-exploiting its own resources.”
There’s one other theory that comes from two anthropologists, Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, from the University of Hawaii, and their ideas suggest that what happened on Easter Island was “an unlikely story of success rather than a case of abject failure.” They argue that no hard evidence has been found to support the burning of these forests, and that the trees actually disappeared because of Polynesian rats that came in the canoes of early settlers. These rodents had no enemies on the island and so multiplied rapidly (in lab settings rat populations can double in 47 days) while feasting on the tree seeds and palm roots. So as the trees disappeared, taking with them the land and sea birds, the humans (because we are a highly adaptable species) took to eating the rats along with the vegetables they were able to grow.
So was this a success story? Robert Krulwich had this to say as he wrote in 2013:
We’ve seen people grow used to slums, adjust to concentration camps, learn to live with what fate hands them. If our future is to continuously degrade our planet, lose plant after plant, animal after animal, forgetting what we once enjoyed, adjusting to lesser circumstances, never shouting, “That’s It!” – always making do, I wouldn’t call that “success.”
What do you think?
-Terry Olson, Titan Outlet Store Team