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No. 1053:
Easter Island

Today, we read a disturbing lesson in the record of Easter Island. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Easter Island, with its huge, long-faced statues, looking inland, their backs to the sea, has long been a trouble to our minds. For years people sorted through that barren species-depleted patch of land, trying to figure out what went wrong.

The Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen landed there in 1722 and found a 50-square-mile wasteland peopled by 2000 Polynesians. Traditionally, Polynesians are fine sailors who've ranged the Pacific in their sleek canoes. But these islanders rode small leaky canoes patched together from bits of wood. They had to cling to the shore. Deep-sea fishing was out of the question.

Physiologist Jared Diamond tells how their main meat supply was chicken. Nothing else of any size lived on the island. No land birds -- not even bats, snails, or lizards. Only 47 higher plant species -- grasses, ferns, two kinds of small tree, two woody shrubs. The place, quite simply, was an ecological disaster area.

Yet all those great statues of the same gaunt human face! Four hundred were finished. Five hundred more had been abandoned in various states of completion. The finished ones were as tall as 33 feet. One, still in the quarry, was to have been 65 feet tall -- a 240-ton monolith. These are the works of a strong, energetic people. What could've happened to them?

Archaeologists and anthropologists have gradually extracted the sad story of Easter Island. It goes like this:

By 800 AD, Polynesian sailors had discovered a subtropical forest here. They settled in and made canoes from the great 80-foot palm trees. They farmed the land and the supplemented their diet with porpoise which they fished in the open sea. They also used the trees to fashion rigging for their heroic stoneworks. They called this rich and abundant land, Rapa Nui.

As they used slash and burn methods to clear the land and as they consumed wood, the trees thinned. Monument building became competitive -- an expression of personal power in the face of diminishing resources. The rat population rose. People attacked the trees and rats attacked their seeds. The high culture of Easter Island peaked around 1400. By 1500, Porpoise bones vanished from Easter Island garbage dumps. Easter Islanders began eating rats, snails, lizards, and finally, one another. When Roggeveen arrived in 1722, the people were living in caves, at war with each other.

It's a harrowing story for us as we use up our resources, build monuments, and wage war. Is the fate of Easter Island to be our own fate? These people didn't bring extinction upon themselves. Nature doesn't always exact such a clear price when we're unwise. Their punishment for folly was instead to live, thereafter, eking out a life on the mere fringe of survival.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Diamond, J., Easter's End. Discover, August 1995, pp. 62-69.

I am grateful to Easter Island anthropologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg for her additional counsel on this episode.

This story is also told at the website: