The Easter Island debate

This image surfaced on the front page of reddit yesterday, and I found it quite remarkable. Despite attending an Easter Island exhibit in a museum in Montreal last year, I had no idea the statues were this massive. 

While reading the comments, I stumbled across an interesting debate that I’d thought I’d share. 

This comment sparked it:

Fun fact: many believe that there used to be trees covering the island, but the Rapa Nui (the people who built the Moai) cut them all down, partly because they were used as rollers to help transport the monoliths. The people also brought rats with them which consumed vegetation, including seeds, exacerbating the dilemma.

Edit: Not a fun fact. Not a fun fact at all.


The author of the comment was quickly corrected, and what emerged was an historical debate that hasn’t really been solved. Two main schools have thought exist. The first, the orthodox school, argue that the disaster that destroyed the Rapa Nui people and civilisaiton was ecocide: they consumed their resources too quickly and suffered the consequences when they ran out. A new school has recently emerged though.

Some scientists have recently argued that the demise of the Rapa Nui peoples (who constructed the Moai) was caused by a rat infestation. The rats devoured the roots and seeds of the trees, and the Moai were not moved by trees and massive groups of slaves but just by simply being “walked” in to place by a group of about 30 pulling ropes. Redditor Spades_Slick sums it up well:

People, people, people. None of this is true. This is a myth that has been circulated by Europeans and further popularized by Jared Diamond’s book, “Collapse.” The people didn’t die when the trees left (rats killed the trees, by the way), there was no societal collapse, no huge competition for resources; the people lived off the land with ease and plenty of leisure time. Moving the Moai required no wood and no armies of slaves as most Europeans are prone to think - took a bit of rope and less than 30 people to “walk” it into position.


So it seems the famous, populist historian Jared Diamond, who among other accomplishments, has written the aforementioned collapse and the widely lauded Guns, Germs and Steel is/was wrong. BUT! Diamond responded to these alternative explanations (which are most clearly articulated here, if you’re wondering.)

Here’s an excerpt from the conclusion of Diamond’s response:

The islanders did inadvertently destroy the environmental underpinnings of their society. They did so, not because they were especially evil or deprived of foresight, but because they were ordinary people, living in a fragile environment, and subject to the usual human problems of clashes between group interests, clashes between individual and group interests, selfishness, and limited ability to predict the future. Does that remind you of any problems that we ourselves face today? That’s why we find Easter’s story so gripping, and why it may offer us lessons.

The whole thing is worth reading, it’s fascinating stuff [here].

Diamond’s rebuttal seems quite conclusive and sound, but he is again rebutted by the archaeologists behind the “alternative theory”. You can find it here.


Our work in The Statues that Walked brings a wide range of current research into focus and combines more than a decade of our own field and related Easter Island research to form a coherent picture that is the basis of a new scientific consensus.  Easter Island was a story of remarkable success. And as young Native Islanders have told us, knowledge of their ancestors’ success, not failure, matters greatly to them. The “collapse” story for Easter Island is a convenient and popular parable used for shocking the public about the dangers of over-exuberance and environmental disregard.  However, as we describe in our book, the island’s collapse came only with the germs, guns, and enslavement brought by the outside world.  Given what is at stake in terms of lessons to be learned about long-term survival on an isolated and resource poor location, the truth matters.  Indeed, we have much to learn from Easter Island.

I don’t really know enough to weigh in, but Diamond’s explanation sounds more solid. Either way, it’s extraordinarily interesting to see these kind of debates occur between professionals, especially since this has emerged so recently. It would be a great exercise for a high school history class to analyze the evidence and choose a side. 

Oct 23, 2011