Easter Island Myths and Realities
The island’s demise was a human and Little Ice Age tragedy, not “ecological suicide.”
In a recent New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof misleads us about the awful history of Easter Island (2,300 miles west of Chile), whose vegetation disappeared in the cold drought of the Little Ice Age. In doing so, he blinds modern society to the abrupt, icy climate challenge that lies in our own future.
Kristof repeats the archaeological myth that Easter Island’s natives committed “ecological suicide,” by cutting down all their palm trees. They supposedly used the logs as rollers to move their famous huge statues. Afterward, they could no longer build canoes to catch the fish that were their key protein source. Worse, he says, clearing the trees resulted in so much soil erosion that most of the population starved and/or killed each other in famine-driven desperation.
This myth disguises the impacts of the Little Ice Age on Easter, and ignores the inevitable reality that our coming generations could relatively soon face another icy age that will harshly test our technologies. The cold centuries may even make man-made global warming look positively attractive!
Easter Islanders never cut their palm trees at all! According to their cultural legends, when the Polynesians’ canoes reached Easter about 1000 AD, the island was covered in grasses. There were only a few palms. Modern pollen studies confirm this, showing that the island did have palm trees in the ancient past – but most died in the cold droughts of the Dark Ages (600–950 AD). The few surviving palms died during the Little Ice Age after the Polynesians colonized the island. The last palm died about 1650.
Kristof seems not to understand the killing power of the cold, chaotic, carbon dioxide-starved climate in those “little ice ages.”
The islanders wouldn’t have used palm logs for canoes in any case. The Polynesians knew palm logs are far too heavy. Canoes need to skim on top of the waves, even when carrying heavy loads. The Polynesians made their canoes out of sewn planks from the much-lighter toromiro trees, whose seedlings they’d brought with them from the Marquesas Islands to the west.
Soil erosion? The Easter Islanders didn’t need to clear trees from their land to grow their crops of taro, yams and sweet potatoes. They planted the tubers between the stumps of smaller trees cut for occasional house-building. The cut trees re-grew from their living stumps; their root systems remained alive and continued to protect the soil. In fact, the islanders’ agricultural techniques protected soil even more effectively than mainland farms did until the advent of modern no-till farming.
No fish to eat? A U.S. Navy lieutenant, who visited Easter in 1886, shortly after the Little Ice Age ended, reported that the natives ate huge amounts of seafood! Most of the fish were caught from small inshore canoes, with rockfish a favorite. The natives also speared dolphins in the shallows, after confusing the animals’ famed “sonar” by clapping rocks together. Crayfish and eels abounded in the shoreline’s rocky crevices, and flying fish flung themselves onto the beaches. Turtles and shellfish were plentiful.
Nor did the islanders kill each other off in hunger wars – although the sweet potato crops were scanty and population numbers dropped during those chilly Little Ice Age droughts.
What did happen to the Easter population? The truth is a sickening look at exploitation of some of the most vulnerable people on earth by some of the most powerful of the day. Peruvian slave-raiders took most of the men to Peru in the 1800s, to dig shiploads of seabird dung (guano) from offshore islands to fertilize Europe’s fields. Terrible conditions, overwork and European diseases killed most of the kidnapped slaves.
Peruvian citizens’ outrage over their mistreatment eventually forced the authorities to return the few who had survived. Unfortunately, the survivors carried smallpox back to Easter. Only a few natives lived through the ensuing epidemic. Later, well-meaning missionaries brought tuberculosis.
The final disaster was Peru’s leasing of the island’s grasslands to absentee landlords for sheep-grazing. The sheep destroyed the last of the toromiro trees, while the surviving natives were (unbelievably) penned behind barbed wire – until 1960 – when worldwide condemnation finally intervened.
Kristof, who may have gotten his Easter Island myths from Jared Diamond’s misguided book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, demeans the sustainable traditions of the South Pacific’s Polynesian settlers. Their insightful tradition was not to use up a resource more rapidly than they could see it restoring itself.
Mother Nature, not the Polynesians, destroyed the trees. She did it over and over: in the Iron Age Cooling, during the cold Dark Ages and then again amid the Little Ice Age. Nor was Mother Nature being “careless.” She was responding to the age-old commands of the sun, the gravitational fields of the four biggest planets, and the other powerful natural forces that have always governed Earth’s climate.
Those same planetary patterns also govern our future, whether we like it or not. Another “icy age” will inevitably replace our current and relatively supportive climate warmth and stability. That probably (hopefully) won’t arrive for another several centuries. Our current warming period is only 150 years old; the shortest Dansgaard-Oeschger warm phase on record was the Medieval, which lasted 350 years.
The Easter Islanders were technologically capable enough (if barely) to sustain their society through Nature’s climate cycles. Elsewhere, nomads from the Black Sea region survived the Last Glacial Maximum (in temperatures below -40 degrees Celsius/Fahrenheit) by inventing mammoth-skin tents to survive the cold as they followed migrating mammoths. Those huge furry beasts were themselves forced to move frequently as the Ice Age turned the grass into less-nourishing tundra.
Our ancestors also made the most important discovery in all human history farming, only about 10,000 years ago. Farming finally allowed humans to become more than scattered hunting bands, carrying their babies and scant possessions on their backs. They could support larger populations, create languages, build temples, cities and trading ships, and launch industries that made copper, bronze and then iron.
Collective learning has now gotten us to the point where we create resources rather than just finding them. Think nitrogen fertilizer, which is taken from the air that’s 78% nitrogen, and then returned to the sky through natural processes. Think computer chips and fiber optic cables made from sand.
We are no longer doomed to thrive, only to collapse again. Our challenge today is not to retreat into a harsh and uncertain dependence on Mother Nature and her deadly “ice age” betrayals. Rather, we can and must prepare for the next “icy age” we know is coming – by continuing our collective learning, using a matured wisdom, and not turning our backs on the fossil fuel, nuclear and other reliable, affordable energy sources that have made our industries, health, innovations and living standards possible.
Mr. Kristof’s mythology would lead us back into ignorance, not forward.