by Usha Alexander
[This is the seventeenth in a series of essays, On Climate Truth and Fiction, in which I raise questions about environmental distress, the human experience, and storytelling. All the articles in this series can be read here.]
The peopling of Polynesia was an epic chapter in world exploration. Stirred by adventure and hungry for land, intrepid pioneers sailed for days or weeks beyond their known horizons to discover landscapes and living things never before seen by human eyes. Survival was never easy or assured, yet they managed to find and colonize nearly every spot of land across the entire southern Pacific Ocean. On each island, they forged new societies based on familiar Polynesian models of ranked patrilineages, family bonds and obligations, social care and cohesion, cooperation and duty. Each culture that arose was unique and changeable, as islanders continually adjusted to altered conditions, new information, and shifting political tides. Through trial and hardship, most of these civilizations—even on some of the tiniest islands, like Anuta and Tikopia, discussed in the preceding essay—persisted for centuries or millennia, up to the present day. But others faltered, failing to thrive or even to maintain continuity.
Most Polynesian societies that met the tragic fate of famine and disintegration were on remote islands measuring but a few square miles. But size alone was not the decisive factor. In fact, the most famous case occurred on a substantially larger island of about sixty square miles, called Rapa Nui1, widely known as Easter Island. Despite its relatively generous size, Rapa Nui suffered certain drawbacks. Owing to its more southerly latitude, outside the tropics, it was cooler, drier, and windier than most Polynesian islands—suboptimal conditions for some of their primary crops. Freshwater sources were also few, relative to the island’s size, and sometimes difficult to access. And the cooler surrounding ocean didn’t support the shallow reefs more common to tropical seas, making the islanders’ survival dependent on deep-sea fishing.
On the other hand, when the migrants first arrived, almost eleven hundred years ago, the pristine island was crowned with a dense forest of enormous trees, including a colossal species of palm found nowhere else on Earth, as well as other edible and useful plants. Small fish and shellfish could be gathered along the coast. In addition to several species of non-migratory birds inhabiting the forestland, seabird rookeries crowded the surfaces of rocky mounts just offshore. And the island’s three dormant volcanoes provided great quarries of stone suitable for making fine tools. The fate of the Rapanui people was in no way preordained.
In Pursuit of Greatness
Rapa Nui is a distant outlier among the Polynesian islands, a multi-week voyage from the nearest island of Mangareva, the colonizers’ possible starting point. According to Rapanui oral traditions, their island was first discovered on an exploratory mission in search of new land; soon after, it was settled by a royal entourage—an ariki of divine birth, with his wife and children—alongside a complement of working families with their chickens, Pacific rats, taro, purple yam, sweet potato, sugar cane, paper mulberry and other crops in tow. Heedful of the island’s cool and dry conditions, the colonizers opted to leave behind some of their staples, including the cold-sensitive coconut and breadfruit trees, as well as pigs, who disturb gardens and consume more calories than they provide.
Within a few years of landing, during the 10th century CE, the ariki partitioned the island among his sons who dispersed across the land, establishing the founding clans and territories of a unified agricultural state to be ruled by divine royals, possessed of the supernatural force called mana. As elsewhere in Polynesia, the ariki was responsible for redistributing food and goods, but in the Rapanui system, he and his aristocrats enjoyed real advantages and privileges, including a life of relative leisure, exclusive access to choice seafoods and, significantly, the power to make and enforce rules on others’ behavior. Close to the aristocrats were the astronomer-priests; below them were warriors and craftspeople, followed by fishers and farmers, then servants.
The settlers got to work, industriously cutting and burning forest cover in order to plant their crops. They constructed massive stone aqueducts to irrigate their fields with the rainwater that collected in volcanic crater lakes. They built fleets of canoes to provision porpoises and fishes from the deep seas, mostly for the upper-classes. Low-ranking people relied mainly on their intensively farmed diet, based around their tubers, bananas, and sugarcane, supplemented with birds’ eggs, shellfish, local fruits, and rats. They thrived and grew. In the early centuries, the Rapanui likely remained in contact with their ancestral homeland, sending delegations to participate in inter-island cultural events and festivals. They mastered quarrying and working the several types of volcanic stone and began to carve sacred likenesses of their male ancestors, called moai, as tall as a man and imbued with mana. They built wide roads to link people across the island with fields and quarries. They developed a writing system to record genealogies, so central to their social structure, alongside their mythic and secular lore.2
After several centuries, that initial founding colony of perhaps several score individuals had mushroomed to as many as seventeen-thousand. By this time, inter-island communication had waned. But the production of moai and the ritual activities surrounding them were well established as the crowning industry of royal patronage, having expanded to megalithic proportions. The islanders would carve nearly a thousand monoliths over some six centuries (though not all would be completed or mounted upright), culminating in those iconic, gargantuan stone “heads”3 that today litter the barren hillocks of Easter Island, mounted upon massive stone platforms (ahu), themselves marvels of engineering. As clans across the island competed to outdo each other in the glory of their erections, the moai grew to exceed thirty feet in height and ninety tons in weight. With increasing effort expended in the production of moai, this industry became a peculiar engine of economic growth. The Rapanui had built up a civilization no less majestic (if less opulent) than had the early Egyptians, all without gold or iron or bronze, without oxen or donkeys, without regional trade.
Yet, not all was well. Amid their mounting greatness, the breakdown of their island ecosystem was already becoming plain. Several species of non-migratory birds, whose eggs they were eating and whose habitat they were chopping down, rapidly went extinct. Perhaps, at first, they hadn’t realized how slowly the trees grew on this island. Or that their rats had taken a liking to the little seeds of the giant palm tree, eating its nuts nearly as fast as they were falling, so that few new trees even had a chance to take root. The shrinking forest cover caused the island’s thin soils to erode—to the point that some regions of the island had to be abandoned over the centuries. Reduced forest cover also meant less rain fell on the island, affecting all crop production.
Living as they did so close to the land—and cognizant of their geographic isolation—the Rapanui were undoubtedly far more attentive to the changes their island was undergoing than we have been to our global environmental changes over the past three centuries. From early on, the Rapanui had imposed seasonal taboos on hunting sea turtles and other animals to prevent their overexploitation. As the island grew increasingly arid, farmers developed new techniques. For instance, they covered large tracts of land with “stone gardens,” fields densely covered with chunks of volcanic stone, to nurture taro and sweet potatoes. This form of farming, known as mulching, retains water and protects the soil from erosion. The stones keep the ground warm for these tropical plants and leech out minerals that help fertilize the soil. Purple yams grew well in pits dug between these stone gardens. Tall, semi-circular walls of stone protected stands of sugarcane and bananas from the strong winds. The Rapanui built terraces, canals, and reservoirs of superb craftsmanship, breaking, gathering, moving, hewing incredible quantities of stone to support their subsistence. Their innovative farming methods and conservation measures helped to extend their way of life against the rising damage to their ecosystem.
But they did not stop cutting down the trees or fashioning ever greater moai. Trees were essential to the Rapanui way of life. You might say, they were central to the Rapanui economy. The hard wood of the local trees was required for building canoes, which they needed for fishing and visiting the rocks where seabirds still roosted, across rough waters. The Rapanui used wood to cook, to keep warm during the island’s chilly winters, to cremate their dead, and to build their sturdy houses. They used wood to help transport each moai to its awaiting ahu. Without the grand trees, this way of life would no longer be possible. But by the latter half of the seventeenth century, the forest was completely razed and the endemic tree species were extinct.
Discontinuity and Disorder
One might conjure an apocryphal image of a group of Rapanui, stone axes in hand, gathered round the last copse of tall trees left standing on their isolated trace of land. All the other great trees in the ancient forest that once covered the island had been felled over the preceding seven centuries. What were they thinking, we wonder, when they stood ready to cut down those last solid specimens? These represented their last chance at sea-worthy canoes—to fish, or maybe to escape to another land. These would be the last fuel for their moai-centered economic engine. Their last hope to regrow the forest! How could they have knowingly come to the precipice of their own way of life? What did they think would happen after the trees were gone? It beggars the mind with distress and disbelief at their wanton destruction or knowing disregard for consequences. Or does it?
In fact, it’s not that hard to imagine what they were thinking, if you admit the parallels between their predicament and ours. We hear the same thoughts echoing all around us in our similar moment of crisis today. I imagine most Rapanui decision-makers thinking, We can’t just stop cutting down the trees. They’re the only thing that can save us! Maybe they reasoned, Wood is the basis of all of our innovations to solve our problems—which are mounting every decade. We need this wood to maintain what we have and improve what’s broken. Perhaps they reassured themselves, Surely, a new forest will grow in time, or a new way to continue will be found. They trusted the invisible hand of the moai to aid their efforts and kindly direct their fate, for they had done everything right. Hadn’t they achieved a level of understanding and technology unimagined by their forebears? Didn’t they now know, better than ever, what they were doing and how best to live? Had they not built a monumental civilization of unparalleled wealth and achievement? No doubt, as popular faith in the power of royal mana first began to crack, entrenched political interests doubled down to keep alive, relevant, and persuasive those stories that defended the status quo and further fortified royal power and their cults of moai. Even as those stories were failing them, their historical success continued to blind them to the limits of their paradigm of civilization; they wanted to believe that more of the same would save them.
Archaeology and oral histories provide some clues to the fate of the Rapanui, as their island was denuded. Porpoises and tuna had already disappeared from their diets a century before the last trees were cut. Perhaps, as the forest shrank, fishing canoes were no longer maintained in the interest of keeping the rest of the civilizational machinery running. Native fruits were becoming harder to find. Crop yields too were declining. There came a point when so much effort was required to produce adequate food for the populace that none remained to continue carving the moai, whose production, distribution, and ritual use were so intricately enmeshed within their systems of meaning and social order. There came a point when people began to starve. When there wasn’t enough wood to cremate the dead. Warrior factions rose up and deposed the royalty, imposing a new social order. Clan structures were disrupted and reconstituted. Short, bloody confrontations periodically erupted across the land, prompting people to seek refuge in caves; these they fortified with stones poached from earlier engineering projects—raiding the infrastructures of a collapsing civilization. Eventually, they even desecrated the sacred moai, no longer afraid of their mana, toppling them and gouging out their coral eyes. They hollowed out chambers in the ahu to hold bones of the dead. At times, people resorted to cannibalism.
While we don’t know just how these political and cultural upheavals played out, we know they occurred much more quickly than the seven centuries required to build up that monumental civilization, which likely had reached its apex by the late 16th Century. Less than a hundred years later, the last moai had been carved; the last stands of forest were gone; the upland plantations had been abandoned; and commoners had moved into coastal areas, previously forbidden to them. On Easter Day of 1722, when the first Europeans set eyes upon Rapa Nui, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen described a landscape of “parched-up grass, and hay or other scorched and charred brushwood… an extraordinarily sparse and meagre vegetation”. As they drew nearer to land, his officer Behrens reported, “thousands” of islanders jumped into the water, swimming toward the ships or arriving in little dinghies. The Rapanui stared with wonder at the three European ships, “desirous of finding out what design had brought us there” and offered gifts of chickens and tubers. Many more islanders were seen on the beach, “running up and down like deer”. The Europeans also spotted “great numbers of heathen idols erected on shore.” Priests were lighting fires and prostrating themselves prayerfully before the moai.4
Over a hundred Europeans went ashore, thronged by crowds of islanders, who pressed around them, snatching at their belongings. Roggeveen noted several sturdy longhouses in use. But he was flummoxed by the sight of their giant moai, wondering “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”. Their little skiffs, too, Roggeveen observed, were of very flimsy construction and full of leaks, having been so “skillfully” stitched together from short planks of wood. These Europeans spent hardly two days among the Rapanui and couldn’t begin to form a comprehensive idea of their society, but their huge party was greeted by no obvious person of rank on the island—no king or chief or royal official came forward to meet the first outsiders to stop on the island in over five hundred years. Behrens surmised, “there are no great distinctions between them…. each household was independent, wherein the most elderly of its men took the lead.” This first landing of Europeans on Rapa Nui would begin with a dozen islanders shot dead and more of them injured, the victims of a few trigger-happy sailors. In spite of this horrific massacre, the islanders generously fed their visitors.
It would be two generations before the Rapanui encountered Europeans again, when Captain Gonzalez’s Spanish ships arrived in 1770. The Spaniards hosted “hundreds” of Rapanui aboard their ships, cavorting to fife music and gifting trinkets. Over the course of four days spent carefully surveying the entire island, one of Gonzalez’s pilots noticed traces of former agricultural fields, now abandoned in favor of small garden plots. He learned that many Rapanui “dwell in underground caves or in the hollow of some rock” fortified with stones and provided with exceedingly narrow entrances. And he observed the reverence paid to the moai, as well as to a smaller “idol” he saw, fashioned from plant fibers.
Both European expeditions, separated by half a century, encountered a people they described as notably tall, strong, healthy, and of a happy disposition, scantily clothed in colored barkcloth and sporting all manner of intricate bodily adornments. All the commentators from these voyages also mentioned the island’s missing women, who comprised much less than half the island’s population; one of the Spaniards also noted a conspicuous absence of boys. But apart from this, none of them log any note of real concern for the condition of the Rapanui. In fact, having received copious quantities of chickens and high-quality produce as gifts from the islanders, all were quite convinced that, despite initial appearances, the island must constitute fertile land that could be profitably farmed under European guidance. One wonders whether, after an initial phase of catastrophe—famine and political disintegration—the Rapanui, at this point, might not have reconstituted their society in a new equilibrium with their degraded land and with each other.
At the behest of the Spaniards, the affable Rapanui carried three large wooden crosses—singing and dancing as they went—to be planted on hilltops with much fanfare. Afterwards, the Spaniards produced a document, which some of the Rapanui men “signed or attested by marking upon it certain characters in their own form of script.” Fully persuaded the Rapanui had gladly donated their island to the Spanish king, the Spaniards happily departed.
But four years later, Captain Cook5 painted a different picture. After stopping on the island for four days, Cook came away with the impression that the island was impoverished for food, saying,
“No Nation will ever contend for the honour of the discovery of Easter Island as there is hardly an Island in this sea which affords less refreshments.… Nature has hardly provided it with any thing fit for man to eat or drink, and as the Natives are but few and may be supposed to plant no more than sufficient for themselves, they cannot have much to spare to new comers. The produce is Potatoes, Yams, Taro or the Edoy root, Plantains and Sugar Cane, all excellent in its kind, the Potatoes are the best of the sort I ever tasted… but not much….”
Cook makes no comment on the stature and health of the islanders, but he too was startled at how few women he saw.6 His was the first report of a skeleton seen lying among the stones of a partially dismantled ahu. His men, who explored much more of the island, said several of the mysterious stone colossi had been toppled and broken. All of this filled the men with a sense of dread and they were soon eager to be off to “some more happy spot.”
We don’t know exactly what happened in the years between these European visitations, nor whose logs comprise the more astute observations of the people and land. The Spaniards had estimated the island’s population between eight-hundred and a thousand; Cook guessed six or seven hundred. Any of them may well have been wrong about the numbers, even by a factor or two or three, but not likely by an order of magnitude. Cook’s tally might reflect surprise at the dearth of inhabitants on an island of such size, since he was familiar with other, thriving Polynesian islands and recognized the Rapanui as a branch of the same, based on their language and aesthetic. It’s possible that by the time of Cook’s visit in 1774, a second shock such as drought, storm, or disease brought by the previous European visitors had sent the Rapanui into another phase of catastrophe. It’s also possible the ongoing breakdown of Rapanui society and its population decline had been proceeding unabated for two centuries, unseen by the various Europeans during their limited forays.
What is clear from reading the accounts is that the Europeans didn’t understand much of what was really going on among the Rapanui any more than the Rapanui understood the motives and intentions of the Europeans. But the descriptions they provided also leave little room to doubt that by the time Roggeveen arrived, Rapa Nui was no longer ruled by a sacred dynasty; their sharply hierarchical civilization had substantially flattened. Before Gonzalez’s visit (and likely before Roggeveen’s), the Rapanui population had already crashed—archaeology suggests by as much as seventy percent from its peak. Large plantations had been abandoned and Rapanui society was remade upon an economic base of subsistence horticulture. Wars were being fought, with people taking refuge in caves, and survivors were experiencing a demographic crisis, with too few women and children to sustain their population. Only modest degrees of social differentiation remained among them, yet there were still priests and others who continued to protect and worship the moai through these centuries of tribulation; almost certainly, however, the meanings of the moai were contested long before people undertook the great effort required to push them over, beginning sometime after 1770. The last moai was toppled around 1840.
The rapid decline of population and the discontinuities fracturing the Rapanui social world during the 17th and 18th Centuries is reasonably considered a societal collapse. Yet it’s worth noting that even as their civilization and ecosystem were breaking down, the Rapanui remained engaged in many of the normalcies of everyday life. They were still gardening productively and ingeniously. They were holding festivals and competing in sports tournaments. The descendants of those who’d survived the famines were again eating well. They were developing new forms of art, adorning themselves with pigments, jewelry, bodily modifications, and finely dyed barkcloth. They were worshipping old and newly ascendant divinities, telling old and new stories. Despite having suffered periods of horrific warfare and even episodes of cannibalism, they never greeted foreigners with violence—not even after having been fired upon with muskets. They never stopped innovating and adapting. But their great civilization—certainly approaching its zenith—was plainly unsustainable. Their pursuit of human power or “greatness,” manifested in a pyramid of social tiers maintained by excesses of production and increasing extraction, had taken them into ecological overshoot: they had degraded their ecosystem, stealing its future productivity for immediate surpluses, until collapse was inevitable.
More ships visited Rapa Nui after Cook’s, bringing a series of documented plagues and chronology of violence, including raiders who abducted and sold most of the islanders into slavery in Peruvian mines. Missionaries took up residence on the island in 1864 and by 1872 only one-hundred and eleven Rapanui people remained. The following decade, Chile claimed the island and fenced the dwindling survivors onto a small reservation, from where the men could be called upon to labor on the sheep farms and mines their captors installed on their island. Only after nearly a hundred years of living thus in detention, were the Rapanui granted Chilean citizenship. Today, a few thousand islanders proudly claim Rapanui ancestry while several hundred still speak their Indigenous language.
Degrowth as Development
What does this mean for us, who have pursued our own image of greatness into ecological overshoot on a global scale? Part of the answer must lie in questioning what it even means to be a great civilization. I’m not persuaded that a truly great civilization is one that’s reconciled with destitution and institutional systems of exploitation in its midst, nor one that’s in the business of wholesale destruction of life on the planet. In fact, I would question everything we imagine we know about the salutary way to go forward. We must peer beyond the bubble of our short-term, historical “success” that blinds us to the limits of our paradigm of civilization.
The Rapanui exploited their land faster than it could regenerate their needed resources. Our predicament is more advanced: Globally, we’ve already seen the number of living wild animals decline by almost sixty percent in just fifty years, largely due to massive habitat destruction and encroachment. But we’re also disastrously disrupting the planet’s biological and geochemical cycles by generating pollution—ecologically destabilizing substances, including excess carbon dioxide and methane as well as phosphorous, nitrogen, plastics and more—much faster than Earth can absorb or neutralize it. All of this is not only accelerating the ongoing global mass extinction of animal and plant life across the globe, but also causing Earth’s temperature to rise at an alarming rate. This global warming will be catastrophic for agriculture, as climate zones shift and rains become unreliable, and it will be disastrous for urban life, as cities are more frequently flooded by rising seas and torrential downpours—consequences that are ruinous to our form of civilization.
Just as among the Rapanui, more of the same economic activities cannot save us from the destruction of which they are the cause.
Instead, we must think smaller, more locally, less materialistically about what we need, less narrowly about what constitutes civilized life. We must shrink the overall scale of the human enterprise. We who are high on consumption must dial it down. Deploying modes of renewable energy harvesting, regenerative farming, and plastic reduction are only a beginning. We must develop alternate modes of human relatedness, achievement, and subsistence. The only viable road to cushion our fall from overshoot is voluntary and collective restraint in overall energy and resource use and material production—the opposite of economic growth.
One modern economist who was early to recognize the danger of our present growthist thralldom was Ernst F Schumacher (1911–1977). Schumacher was concerned about how current economic models fail to account for the true costs of producing goods by dismissing the environmental costs. He regarded it a grievous error that stocks of natural resources get accounted as income rather than capital. And he considered it folly to privilege the priorities of modern economics as a guide to direct the development of societies, as though the discipline were built upon scientific or objectively sensible principles rather than a particular, historically mediated worldview. Perhaps not unlike the voices of doubters and heretics who were disregarded or silenced on Rapa Nui, five-hundred years ago, Schumacher’s observations of half a century ago resound as more than prescient today:
“An industrial system which uses forty percent of the world’s primary resources to supply less than six percent of the world’s population could be called efficient only if it obtained strikingly successful results in terms of human happiness, wellbeing, culture, peace, and harmony. I do not need to dwell on the fact that the American system fails to do this, or that there are not the slightest prospects that it could do so if only it achieved a higher rate of growth of production, associated, as it must be, with an even greater call upon the world’s finite resources…. But if the United States’ economy cannot conceivably be successful without further rapid growth, and if that growth depends on being able to draw ever-increasing resources from the rest of the world, what about the other 94.4 percent of mankind which are so far ‘behind’ America? If a high-growth economy is needed to fight the battle against pollution, which itself appears to be the result of high growth, what hope is there of ever breaking out of this extraordinary circle?”7
[Part 18: This Is Not the Zombie Apocalypse. All essays in this series can be read here.]
1 Most details about the life, land, and history of the Rapanui are gleaned from The Land of Hotu A Matu’a: Rapa Nui, an Archaeology of the Impossible by Jose Miguel Ramirez-Aliaga and from Collapse: How Societies Choose To Succeed or Fail by Jared Diamond.
2 Surviving samples of their ideographic script, Rongo Rongo, remain undeciphered. The last persons who’d been trained to read it had all passed away by the middle of the nineteenth century. A few individuals, who yet remembered the oral tradition, were able to provide an understanding of what the writing said, though they couldn’t actually read it.
3 Each complete moai is, in fact, a full-body sculpture, with exaggerated dimensions for its head.
4 All accounts from the early European encounters with Rapa Nui (except those of Captain Cook) are gleaned from The Voyage of Captain Don Felipe Gonzalez to Easter Island 1770–1 : Preceded by an Extract from the Official Log of Mynheer Jacob Roggeveen in 1722 transcribed, edited, and translated by Bolton Glanvill Corney; Cambridge University Press, 1903.
5 The observations of Captain Cook and his crewmen are gathered from the webpages of The Captain Cook Society.
6 One of Cook’s shipmates reported that women came at night to partake of the sailors’ company; one woman boldly went out to their ship and spent time with several of the men. Fifty-two years earlier, Behrens had claimed that in their outpouring of grief following the massacre of their people, the islanders “made tender of their womenkind… asking whether we could accompany them to their huts”. Four years before Cook, Gonzalez’s officer wrote that women were only accompanied by elder Rapanui men, who were encouraging when “the women go to the length of offering with inviting demonstrations all the homage that an impassioned man can desire.” Having observed that the Rapanui share everything, the Spaniards surmised that they share women too. Of course, pre-Christian Polynesian cultures are well known for their liberal sexual mores. But reading this, I wondered whether these women of a vanishing people (and limited gene pool) weren’t just desperately trying to get pregnant.
7 Pages 125–126, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by Ernst F Schumacher. Blond & Briggs, 1973.
1. A moai on Rapa Nui. This one has been resurrected and its coral eyes restored by anthropologist William Mullo. Similar red “hats,” such as worn by this one, were made from a different type of volcanic stone than the rest of the body and originally crowned several of the moai; it remains a mystery how the ancient Rapanui hoisted these atop the heads of the moai. Photo by Pavel Spindler, 2008. Creative commons.
4. Cartoon, Fossil Fuel Solutionism. Image source.
6. Rapanui people taking part in their traditional dance. Creative commons.
7. Cartoon, our civilizational bubble.