A Big Lesson From a Tiny Island

RAPA NUI, a 64-square-mile [170 sq km] volcanic outcrop virtually devoid of trees, is the most isolated piece of inhabited land in the world. * The entire island is now a historical monument, partially because of its rock statues called moai. These are the work of a once vibrant civilization.

Carved from volcanic rock, some moai are buried so deep that only their giant heads are visible. In other cases, the torso is aboveground, and some moai still sport a rock topknot called a pukao. By far the majority lie unfinished in quarries or scattered about on ancient roads, as if the workers just threw down their tools and walked off the job. Those standing vary from isolated statues to rows numbering up to 15, each one with its back to the sea. Understandably, the moai have long mystified visitors.

In recent years science has begun to understand not only the mystery of the moai but also the puzzle of why the once thriving civilization that built them collapsed. Significantly, the facts coming to light have more than historical value. According to Encyclopædia Britannica, they offer “an important lesson for the modern world.”

That lesson concerns management of the earth, especially its natural resources. Of course, the earth is far more complex and biologically diverse than is a small island, but that does not mean that we should ignore the lesson of Rapa Nui. Let us take a few moments, then, to review some highlights of Rapa Nui’s history. Our account begins about 400 C.E. when the founding families arrived in their oceangoing canoes. The only eyes watching were those of hundreds of seabirds wheeling above.

An Island Paradise

The island did not boast a broad variety of plants, but it was well endowed with forests of palm, hauhau, and toromiro trees, besides shrubs, herbs, ferns, and grasses. At least six species of land birds, including owls, herons, rail, and parrots, were thriving in this remote area. Rapa Nui was also “the richest seabird breeding site in Polynesia and probably in the whole Pacific,” says Discover magazine.

The colonists may have brought chickens and edible rats, which they viewed as a delicacy, to the island. They also brought crop plants: taro, yam, sweet potato, banana, and sugarcane. The soil was good, so they immediately began clearing land and planting—a process that continued as the population grew. But Rapa Nui had a limited area and, though well forested, a limited number of trees.

The History of Rapa Nui

What we know about Rapa Nui’s history is based mainly on three fields of inquiry: pollen analysis, archaeology, and paleontology. Pollen analysis involves taking pollen samples from the sediment of ponds and swamps. These samples reveal the varieties of plants and their abundance over  many hundreds of years. The deeper the pollen sample is lodged within a bed of sediment, the earlier the time period it represents.

Archaeology and paleontology focus on such things as dwellings, utensils, the moai, and the remains of animals used for food. Since any Rapa Nui records are in hieroglyphic form and difficult to decipher, dates preceding European contact are approximations, and many of the assumptions cannot be proved. Additionally, certain developments, as set out below, may overlap adjacent time periods. All dates, shown in bold, are in the Common Era.

400 Between 20 and 50 Polynesian settlers arrive, probably in 50-foot [15 m] or longer double canoes capable of carrying more than 18,000 pounds [8,000 kg] each.

800 The amount of tree pollen in sediment decreases, suggesting deforestation is under way. Grass pollen increases as grass spreads into some of the cleared areas.

900-1300 About one third of the bones of animals caught for food during this period are dolphin bones. To bring in dolphins from the open sea, the islanders employ large canoes made from the trunks of big palms. Trees also furnish raw materials for the gear used to move and erect the moai, the construction of which is by now well under way. Expanding agriculture and the need for firewood continue to nibble away at forests.

1200-1500 Statue construction is at its peak. The Rapa Nui pour vast resources into making moai and the ceremonial platforms on which they stand. Archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg writes: “The Rapa Nui social structure emphatically encouraged the production of more and larger statues.” She adds that “approximately 1,000 statues were produced over some 800 to 1,300 years . . . , one for every seven to nine people at peak population estimates.”

Apparently the moai were not worshiped, though they played a role in burial and agricultural rites. They may have been viewed as an abode for spirits. It seems that they also symbolized their builders’ power, status, and genealogy.

1400-1600 The population peaks at between 7,000 and 9,000. The last patches of forest disappear, in part because of the  extinction of native birds, which had pollinated the trees and dispersed the seeds. “Without exception, every species of native land bird became extinct,” says Discover. Rats also contributed to deforestation; evidence shows that they ate the palm nut.

Erosion soon takes hold, streams begin drying up, and water becomes scarce. Dolphin bones stop appearing about 1500, possibly because of the absence of trees large enough to make oceangoing canoes. Any chance of escape from the island now disappears. Seabirds are wiped out as people become desperate for food. More chicken is eaten.

1600-1722 Absence of trees, intensified land use, and soil depletion contribute to increased crop failures. Large-scale starvation takes hold. The Rapa Nui polarize into two opposing confederacies. The first signs of social chaos appear, possibly even of cannibalism. This is the warrior heyday. People begin living in caves for protection. About the year 1700, the population plummets to approximately 2,000.

1722 Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen is the first European to discover the island. This occurs on Easter, so he names it Easter Island. He records his first impression: “[Easter Island’s] wasted appearance could give no other impression than of a singular poverty and barrenness.”

1770 About this time rival clans of the remaining Rapa Nui begin toppling each other’s statues. When British explorer Captain James Cook visits in 1774, he sees many toppled statues.

1804-63 Contact with other civilizations increases. Slavery, now common in the Pacific, and disease take a savage toll. Traditional Rapa Nui culture essentially comes to an end.

1864 By now all the moai are toppled, many deliberately beheaded.

1872 Only 111 indigenous people remain on the island.

Rapa Nui became a province of Chile in 1888. In recent years Rapa Nui has had a mixed population of about 2,100. Chile has declared the entire island a historical monument. In order to preserve Rapa Nui’s unique character and history, many statues have been reerected.

A Lesson for Today

Why did the Rapa Nui not see where they were headed and try to avert disaster? Note the comments of various researchers regarding the situation.

“The forest . . . didn’t simply disappear one day—it vanished slowly, over decades. . . . Any islander who tried to warn about the dangers of progressive deforestation would have been overridden by vested interests of carvers, bureaucrats, and chiefs.”—Discover.

“The price they paid for the way they chose to articulate their spiritual and political ideas was an island world which came to be, in many ways, but a shadow of its former natural self.”—Easter Island—Archaeology, Ecology, and Culture.

“What happened to the Rapa Nui suggested that uncontrolled growth and the impulse to manipulate the environment past the breaking point were not merely aspects of the industrialized world; they were the human condition.”—National Geographic.

What if today there is no change in the so-called human condition? What if humankind persists in imposing upon our earth—our island in space—an ecologically unsustainable way of life? According to one writer, we have one big advantage over the Rapa Nui. We have as warning examples the “histories of other doomed societies.”

 Yet, it might be asked, Is mankind taking note of these histories? Massive deforestation and the continued extinction of earth’s living things at an alarming rate suggest that it is not. In Zoo Book, Linda Koebner writes: “The elimination of one or two or fifty species will have effects that we cannot predict. Extinctions are creating change even before we understand the consequences.”

A vandal taking one rivet at a time from a plane does not know which rivet will cause a crash; but when that critical rivet is gone, the fate of the plane is sealed, though it may not crash on the very next flight. Likewise, humans are eliminating earth’s living “rivets” at the rate of over 20,000 species per year, with no sign of letup! Who knows the point of no return? And would such advance knowledge really make a difference?

The book Easter Island—Earth Island made this significant comment: “The person who felled the last tree [on Rapa Nui] could see that it was the last tree. But he (or she) still felled it.”

“We Must Change Our Religion”

“If there is any hope,” adds Easter Island—Earth Island, “it is surely in the idea that we must change our religion. Our present gods of economic growth, science and technology, continuously rising standards of living, and the virtues of competition—deities that we consider all-powerful—are like the giant statues on the Easter Island platforms. Each village competed with its neighbours to erect the largest statue. . . . More and more effort went into the resource-consuming . . . , but pointless, carving, moving and erecting.”

A wise person once said: “To earthling man his way does not belong. It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step.” (Jeremiah 10:23) Our Creator is the only one who can show us how to ‘direct our step.’ He is also the only one who can lift us out of our sad condition. This he promises to do in his Word, the Bible—a book that also records many good and bad examples of past civilizations. This book can, indeed, be a ‘light to our roadway’ in these dark times.—Psalm 119:105.

Eventually, that roadway will take obedient humans to a paradise of peace and plenty—a new world that will include that tiny patch in the South Pacific called Rapa Nui.—2 Peter 3:13.


^ par. 2 Although the inhabitants call both their island and themselves Rapa Nui, the island is more commonly known as Easter Island, and the inhabitants are known as Easter Islanders.

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Easter Island

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“Approximately 1,000 statues were produced”

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The whole earth, including remote islands, will become a paradise