Friday, June 28, 2013

A Civilization Collapses: The Strange Case of Easter Island

Scientists now believe that Easter Island was colonized by the Polynesians in the fifth century A.D.  At first there were perhaps twenty or thirty colonists on the island.  As the population grew closely related households formed clans, each with its own religious and ceremonial center.  Competition between the clans produced the giant statues of Easter Island.  At each ceremonial site the clan members erected between one and fifteen of the huge stone statues that survive today.

The statues were carved using only stone tools.  Each statue is the same, carved to resemble a male head and torso. On top of the head was placed a 'topknot' of red stone weighing about ten tons. The carving was time-consuming rather than a complex task. The real problem was transporting the statues, most at least twenty feet high and weighing several tons, from the island’s quarry across the island and then standing them up straight on the clan’s ceremonial platform.  The solution to the transportation problem sealed the fate of the island’s people.  The statues were moved by human labor using tree trunks as rollers.

The population grew steadily from twenty or thirty in 450 A.D. to some 7,000 by 1550 A.D.  As the population grew, the number of competing clans grew and the competition to create ever larger and more numerous statues intensified until by 1600 there were over six hundred huge stone statues dotting the island.  When the society was at its peak, it suddenly collapsed because of massive environmental degradation brought on by the deforestation of the whole island.

The most demanding requirement for wood came from the need to move the large statues to ceremonial sites around the island. Larger and larger quantities of timber were required as the competition between the clans to erect statues grew. As a result by1600 the island was almost completely deforested and statue erection was brought to a halt leaving many stranded at the quarry.

The deforestation of the island spelled the end of statue building and the sophisticated ceremonial life of the island.  It had even graver consequences.   The shortage of trees forced people unable to build huts to live in caves.  Canoes could no longer be built so people could not leave the island.  Removal of the tree cover badly affected the soil of the island.  Crop yields dwindled.  The food base could no longer support the population. Conflicts over diminishing resources resulted in a state of almost permanent warfare between the clans. As the amount of food available fell the population turned to cannibalism.

By the time the Europeans discovered the island, the primitive islanders could no longer remember what their ancestors had achieved and could only say that the huge figures had “walked” across the island.

The real mystery of Easter Island is not the giant stone statues but the question: Why were the Easter Islanders, knowing that they were isolated from the rest of the world and totally dependent on the limited resources of the island, unable to find harmony with their environment when disaster was staring them in the face?

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