A barren land: The massive stone sentinels of Ahu Tongariki form an uncompromising guard against the crashing sea on Chile’s Easter Island.Source: MCT
The cold faces of stone stare silently over the barren landscape. Standing at attention, each stoic face resembles the one beside it. On a tiny Polynesian island in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, these sentinels are the only immediately recognizable sign of life.
This is Easter Island.
A closer inspection reveals abandoned villages, gigantic stone quarries and hundreds of platforms used for religious rites, built by a once thriving society.
Throughout Rano Raraku, a 600-yard quarry, stone picks, chisels and axes lie in dusty disarray. Situated on a dormant volcano, the quarry provided material for Moai, the giant stone statues dotting the island. The only human presence in the mine is a crushed finger bone trapped under a toppled Moai, perhaps remnants of a miner’s accident. Many of the Moai remain unfinished, partially carved and frozen in time. Finely chiseled features adorn some groups; others are without defined shape, ranging from 13 to 75 feet tall. This stone army grimly stands watch at the abandoned mines and gapes at the deserted scar in the earth.
Just east of the quarry lie vast stretches of field, flat, brown and scorched. Dried hay forms a thin veneer over layers of volcanic rock. Sandy soil, drained of all nutrients, no longer supports even small shrubs and trees. The flat terrain offers little resistance to strong winds sweeping the plains. The few remaining trees are no taller than 10 feet and offer little protection for indigenous animals from the beating sun. Only a handful of shattered, starving islanders remain on the island.
Without firsthand descriptions of historic events, scientists have relied on pollen samples, archeological digs and geological tests to understand what happened to the ecosystem. Hailed as one of the most haunting cases of environmental collapse ever seen, Easter Island is an isolated eco-survival study of mankind’s “worst case scenario”—a testament to environmental destruction on a grand scale.
Off the coast of Chile, Easter Island was once a lushly forested subtropical paradise. This tiny triangular island nation supported a prosperous and complex society of up to 30,000 people. Separated from the rest of the world by roughly 1,300 miles of Pacific Ocean, the early Polynesian inhabitants made a daring migration from the neighboring Pitcairn Islands and the mainland of South America.
The climate was well suited for habitation; three long-dormant volcanoes left rich deposits of fertile soil across the terrain. Open grasslands covered the island in between Easter Palm forests, which grew to over 70 feet tall. The volcanic deposit at Rano Raraku to the southeast provided plentiful stores of volcanic tuff for construction.
The tribes that migrated to the island formed a loose collective government that created a unique culture. Primarily farming and seafaring, these groups had a structured tribal society, with a leading chief and a class of priests, along with farmers and tradesmen. The religious pantheon included hundreds of animalistic gods.
Chiefs raised the Moai, each weighing an average of 10 tons, to prove their status with the gods, and exercised power over their followers. The chiefs’ elite status allowed a ruling class to organize society and maintain order among the tribes. Under them, vast projects were organized. Trading harvested resources from the 66-square-mile island encouraged construction on a broad scale. Large plantations produced food surpluses, which aided population growth. Religious worship, fueled by ever larger Moai and elaborate funeral services, united the tribes.
Their society blossomed in an era of prosperity and peace—yet it eventually collapsed.
An August 1995 article in Discover magazine suggested that the environmental collapse of Easter Island happened “not with a bang but with a whimper.” After several generations, islanders slowly consumed most available resources.
Forests were clear-cut for canoes, ropes and firewood. Farms producing sweet potatoes, taro and sugarcane stripped soils of available nutrients. Bird, fish and porpoise populations dwindled to extinction by overhunting. Blind to the impact that a growing population would have on the environment, inhabitants used up the island’s resources until there was nothing left.
A massive migration was impossible due to the great distance from the nearest landmass. The isolated island was unable to draw needed resources from other continents; it was forced to continue on its own. Populations, now too large for the island to support, soon began to die out. Easter Island descended into civil war as chiefs-turned-warlords vied for leftover resources.
Internal conflict and violence turned into anarchy, as the only way to survive was to steal food from opposing tribes. The wars hindered communications and made transportation between the tribes almost impossible. The island was no longer unified—cooperation between peoples ceased. The greed of individuals nullified any attempt at an organized solution to the now catastrophic problems.
The islanders’ use of resources was not sustainable. Great amounts of forest were clear-cut for materials to erect the gigantic Moai. While scientists today do not fully understand how these ancient people raised the monoliths, they agree that strong lumber and rope were necessary. This, coupled with unchecked growth, eventually led to a food shortage. The tribes sank into starvation and cannibalism.
Other articles in this series:
The Coming War for Earth’s Resources– How It Will Change the World!
Consider activities most take for granted, particularly those who live in industrialized nations: drinking a glass of water; driving a car or traveling by mass transportation; living in a decent house or apartment; using modern household appliances; using tools to build, fix and repair; even breathing fresh air. These activities improve our quality of life. Indeed, some are vital to our very existence.
Is Going Green the Answer?– Or Is It Too Little, Too Late?
Severe drought, global food shortages, strip-mining, the destruction of rainforests—these are a few of the issues raised by the green movement.
The Environment, Dwindling Resources and Mankind– What Will Be the Ultimate Outcome?
A four-part series about the environment and humanity’s impact upon it: Think of all the issues that could be addressed—the efforts, theories and competing ideas that could be analyzed—and, after all is said and done, the many different ways this series could conclude.
Resource priorities were completely misplaced. Instead of planning for the future, tribal chiefs squabbled over who could erect the largest Moai. In their lust for power, chiefs sought to maintain their god-like status with great feats of architecture and dazzling sacrificial pyres.
Without a vision of future needs, the population slowly overextended itself. Their unabated consumption ended with the extinction of 90% of all plant and animal life on the island. By the time the people realized their mistake, it was too late. The population was too large, and there was nowhere else to go.
Many today see Easter Island as a metaphor of the modern world. With haunting and obvious parallels, our earth is a tiny island floating in the vastness of space. Globalization, trade and communication have united various “tribes” on our “island.” With “tribes” of nations bound together in a global network, humanity is responsible for planning, controlling and using its valuable—and limited—resources.
The shortsighted decisions made on Easter Island caused the complete destruction of its environment and inhabitants. All tribes were guilty of the sentence they brought on themselves.
Most today believe this scenario could never happen again. Yet Easter Island stands as a stark reminder for those who believe in endlessly exploiting earth’s valuable resources—a testament to mankind’s inability to solve its problems.