UCLA professor Jared Diamond, in his best-selling book Collapse (Allen Lane, 2005; Penguin, revised edition, 2011), popularised the thesis of British archaeologist Paul Bahn and others that the collapse of Easter Island was caused by deforestation and internal social problems, long before the arrival of Europeans. Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo argue, in The Statues That Walked (Free Press, 2011), that, despite deforestation, the islanders managed to grow sufficient food and live in relative peace until the Europeans brought germs and violence to their shore.
Paul Bahn, reviewing the book of Hunt and Lipo, concedes that the huge stone statues were moved upright for miles, without need for timber. This is an important concession, for it implies that the islanders could have been carving and moving statues up to the time of the arrival of the Europeans. Bahn complains, however, that “coverage of work by others is incomplete”.
For example, a variety of evidence contradicts their claim of rat predation: numerous palm fruits not gnawed by rats, palm stumps burned and cut, continued germination of palms despite the rats’ presence, and the disappearance of other plant species that coexist with rats elsewhere. Hunt and Lipo’s claim that human skeletal remains show little evidence of lethal trauma is refuted by quotes from anthropologist Douglas Owsley, the author of a 1994 paper that they reference. After examining more than 600 Easter Island skeletons, Owsley stated in a 2003 BBC documentary that the extreme frequency of injuries proved that these were people at war: “They’re slugging it out, there’s no doubt about it.”
Hunt and Lipo present some of the island’s many features entertainingly, but the history of Rapa Nui is more complex than they allow.
Paul Bahn, “Anthropology: Head to head“, Nature 476 (11 August 2011), pp. 150-151.
Whether rats (who accompanied the human colonizers) or humans themselves were directly responsible for the deforestation of Easter Island is a moot point. A crucial fact – which Bahn in his review does not contest – is that the islanders were healthy, well-fed and peaceful in 1722 when the first Europeans arrived. A society that survived on an inhospitable, treeless island was devastated by previously unknown germs introduced by Europeans. A similar fate awaited numerous tribes and civilisations in the Americas following their contact with Europeans. Hunt and Lipo might overstate their case, but their thesis seems to have more merit that the ‘ecocide’ thesis popularised by Jared Diamond.
Paul Bahn is author (with John Flenley) of Easter Island, Earth Island (Thames & Hudson, 1992).