Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Easter Island

John Bedell

The first Europeans to visit Easter Island were greatly puzzled by what they found there.  The inhabitants were Polynesians related to the people of New Zealand and Hawaii, but compared to their brethren on other islands they seemed strangely reduced.  Maoris and Hawaiians are large, strong people much given to cooking and feasting, but the Easter Islanders were small, stunted, and hungry.  Although the island was the most remoted inhabited place on earth, 1200 sea miles from the next human community, the residents had no boats capable of sailing on the open ocean.  All around the island were scattered 600 of the great stone heads for which it is now famous, yet the poor, hungry inhabitants worked no stone and seemed to lack all the necessary equipment for moving and raising the statues.  They had no political organization that seemed capable of mobilizing the necessary labor, and since the island was treeless they had no logs to serve as rollers anyway.  The quarry where the statues had been cut was easy enough to find, since half a dozen unfinished statues were still there, tools lying around them as if the stonecutters had left for lunch and forgotten to come back.

Fantasies that the statues had been raised by mysterious visitors began at once, with candidates ranging from the Inca to aliens.  Thor Heyerdahl met some islanders who professed to be greatly offended by such talk, and they offered to show him how their ancestors had raised the statues.  They proceeded to do so, testifying both to their own pride and the strength of their remarkable oral tradition.  There was a catch, though; Heyerdahl's friends used hundreds of feet of rope to move the statue, and since there is no plant on the island suitable for making rope, it was all imported.

What happened in this strange and remote place?  How did people who once sailed the oceans and raised monumental statues lose the ability to do those things?  By combining the oral traditions of the Easter Islanders with the findings of modern archaeology, we can now reconstruct the history behind this mystery.  The story is a grim one, in ways that should give us all pause.

By digging, not at village sites and graveyards, but in bogs and marshes, archaeologists have learned that when the first humans arrived Easter Island was a very different place than it is today.  At least four species of large trees grew there, including giant palms and a tree whose bark is used throughout the Pacific for the manufacture of rope.  Another species can be used to make large dugout canoes.   Although Easter is today a windswept and desolate place, a thousand years ago it was lushly forested.

In the trash middens of the early inhabitants other clues have been found.  The most common bones are those of dolphins and deep sea fish, showing that the people were often out on the open ocean.  Today Easter Island has no native land birds, but once there were at least five native species.  Once the island was home to enormous nesting colonies of a dozen species of seabirds, but today only one nests on the island, and that in very limited numbers.  The villages uncovered by archeology are much larger than those of recent times, and several sites have been abandoned; the current estimate is that 500 years ago the island was home to 7000 to 10,000 people, more than twice as many as the 3000 who lived there in 1720.

Easter Island was the site of a great ecological catastrophe entirely caused by its own human inhabitants.  The first settlers arrived there around 500 AD, finding a lush land that easily provided their wants.  Thanks to the bounty of the forests, the oceans, and the great rookeries, the population grew rapidly.  The island divided into eleven chiefdoms, and the chiefs and their followers started to compete by raising statues of their ancestors.  It was a harmless pursuit compared to war, one thinks, but in the end its effects were perhaps more terrible.  For the island's trees were cut one by one to make rollers and rope, until, around 1500, the last tree was cut down.

Polynesians were used to the vibrant forests of the tropics that regrew quickly, but Easter Island was a cold, windswept place close to the limits of what its native trees could tolerate.  No new trees grew up to replace those that had been cut, and the island was covered by grasses and small shrubs.  Without trees, no canoes could be made for fishing, no more statues could be raised, no more houses built in the old Polynesian style.  Without fish, and with the colonies of seabirds now gone, the people began to go hungry.  According to the islanders' own oral tradition, the shortage of food led to ceaseless warfare and then to cannibalism.  Villages were attacked so often that many people moved to caves.  All of the great stone statues were thrown down; they were all lying on their sides when the first Europeans arrived, although some have been re-erected since for tourists.  Much of the ancient culture was lost.  The Easter Islanders had developed a unique way of writing, but by 1800 there were only a few manuscripts left and noone knew how to read them.  It was a hungry band of cave-dwellers, frightened of their neighbors, barely able to feed themselves and full of stories about cannibalism, that greeted the Europeans when they arrived.

The story of the Easter Islanders disturbs us with a question:  could we do to the earth what they did to their island?  True, the earth is a vast place and its life has a richness that no small island can match.  But we will soon be 10 billion, not the 10,000 Easter Islanders, and I think we have no idea what will happen to the earth when 10 billion people have lived on it for a century or so.  Still, it is not this big question that haunts me, but a smaller, simpler one.  I wonder, what was the man who did it thinking as he cut down the last tree?

April 29, 2004


From the 
Commonplace Book

We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.

--Carl Sagan


Commonplace Book
On the Dead
About us



The Lunar Men

White Mughals


Justinian and the Fall of Rome

The Indus Civilization

Syphilis at Jamestown?

The Archaeology of the Soul

The Mississippians

Archaeology Books\

The Sea Peoples

The Lucifer Principle

Piracy and Life


Misremembering the Civil War

Paul Revere

Easter Island

Why the Fires

The Forty-nine Steps

Standards of Learning

The Taliban and the

The Ruin of Kasch

The Cellar Hole

Keatley Creek and the
Meaning of Time