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Easter Island

By melia in Culture
Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 05:48:09 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

It was late at night, and I was watching a repeat of Horizon on the BBC, about Easter Island. It wasn't very interesting at first, but I couldn't sleep and discovered there's a lot more to this story than meets the eye. Not just the thousands of miles these people must have covered to reach the island, but a story of ecological disaster, starvation, cannibalism, and disease.

Scientists had wondered for many years how people had arrived on Easter Island, (known as Rapanui in the Polynesian) which is two thousand miles away from any other population centre. By checking the DNA of the Easter Islanders, they discovered that the origins of the islanders were Polynesian.

These people had come to the islands on relatively small canoes, made from dug out tree trunks, across thousands of miles of open sea, and it's easy to imagine a small group of Polynesians stepping off their canoes onto one of the most isolated islands on earth.

Easter island is most famous for its Moai, the stone monoliths that are dotted about the island. These stone carvings are huge, and very very heavy - some are heavier than the stones of Stonehenge. They must also have taken a long time to carve. What was the purpose of these objects? There is a clue. One of the words used by modern Islanders to describe the objects - "aringa ora" means "the living faces of our ancestors". The islanders were ancestor worshippers.

Each monolith took considerable effort to construct. To begin with, the rock must be carved, a process that could take many years. Then they must be moved around the island. It must have taken an incredibly sophisticated society to allow for their construction. At the height of this society there were over 10,000 people living on this island. There are many different methods that have been proposed to move the monoliths, but all have a common theme - they require wood.

Through dating, it can be seen that over time, the monoliths grew larger and larger, and thus would have required more and more wood to move around. However, there is something even more puzzling. There are over 600 of these statues, and yet, just when Easter Island society had reached its peak, it seems to have collapsed. Many of the statues have been pushed over, in a destructive manner.

Most of the moai were carved out of the rock at Rano Raraku. All around this area are nearly 400 moai, in various stages of completion. It seems that this quarry was suddenly abandoned - tools dropped with half carved statues left in the rock. What caused this?

The clue is in the diet of the people. By studying their diet over time, scientists discovered that in the early period of the island's occupation, there were many birds, and many fish. However, gradually, over time, fewer bird bones, and fewer fish bones, were found. What had happened?

There is something odd about Easter Island. We know that trees are required to transport the statues. We also know that the islanders needed canoes to catch their fish. But looking out over the island, there is not a single tree in sight. The island used to be covered in palm trees. As the mania for statue building increased, more and more trees were cut down. Easter Island is only 150 square miles in area. The whole of the island can be seen from some points. When the last tree fell, everybody knew it was the last tree. But it still fell.

The birds had nowhere to nest. There were no trees to make canoes, to catch the fish. The islanders were trapped, on an island 2000 miles away from the nearest population base, in a prison of their own making... and they had very little food.

About this time there are evidence of the erection of stone shelters. Not just to live in, but to protect chickens, one of the last available sources of food, from thieves. There is also evidence of something else. The islanders began to make weapons. Skeletons begin to show evidence of violent deaths. Stone statues are torn down in anger - their gods have betrayed them. Cannibalism became rife. Society had collapsed into chaos and barbarism.

Yet when Europeans arrived, although the community they found was poor, there was no evidence of this barbarism. The islanders devised a way to share the few available resources. The cult of the birdman established a competitive tradition.

Every year, a representitive of each tribe, chosen by the leaders, would swim across the sea to Motu Nui, a nearby Islet to search for the egg of the Sooty Tern. Then, they would return. Whichever tribe won this race would have control of the island's resources for the rest of the year. The Birdman ritual was still in existence when Europeans arrived on Easter Island - therefore historically documented. Of course, the arrival of these Europeans didn't mean the islanders were freed from their prison - they brought new disaster, in the form of syphilis, smallpox, and slavery.

It's an interesting story. It's a story of human achievement, and a story of human folly. It's also a lesson in environmentalism.

Some Photos of the maoi
Easter Island Glossary
More pictures of the island


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


Related Links
o Horizon
o Easter Island
o Moai
o Rano Raraku
o birdman
o Some Photos of the maoi
o Easter Island Glossary
o More pictures of the island
o Also by melia

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Easter Island | 72 comments (50 topical, 22 editorial, 1 hidden)
It seems incredibly stupid... (4.66 / 3) (#7)
by czth on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 12:13:56 PM EST

... that somebody wouldn't think of the trees!

Seriously, if they were so advanced, couldn't they count trees, and start cutting less of them? Or did they believe their pagan gods would get after them if they didn't make more statues? And when they realized they were running short on wood, wouldn't it be a good idea to start looking into building boats? Or keeping some trees around ("Won't somebody please think of the birds?")

After all, it's not like they woke up one morning and there was only one tree left (well, unless there was 10 the day before and some tribe chopped down 9 during the night, but I digress).


To be honest... (4.66 / 3) (#10)
by melia on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 12:20:51 PM EST

it's a stirring picture to imagine one tree left in 150sq miles of island, and a bloke chopping it down, that's why i described it that way.

The suggestion you made about the gods is a possibility, something i thought of was maybe they didn't understand the mechanisms by which the trees grew, although they did grow sweet potatos so they must have had some knowledge.

Maybe by the time they realised, there simply weren't enough trees left. If you have 10,000 people on an island, 10 trees left, no boats left, and no food... you'd build the boats. And eventually, the boats would rot away.
Disclaimer: All of the above is probably wrong
[ Parent ]

True... (5.00 / 1) (#12)
by czth on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 12:40:26 PM EST

Nothing wrong with a little artistic license now and then :).

But my point stands, why didn't they take steps earlier instead of killing each other? Human nature, I guess - use up all the resources and then hope for a miracle (or move on to a different third world country). It's not like we're not familiar with the method.


[ Parent ]

Presumably... (5.00 / 2) (#32)
by rusty on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 05:45:51 PM EST

I would assume the guy who cut down the last tree thought there were more trees somewhere else. It's kind of hard to imagine them cutting down the last tree and standing back going "Welp, I think we got 'em all, boys!" but it's not hard at all to imagine the guy who cut down the last one searching around for a while and going "Crap! What do you mean you don't have any more either!"

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]
or more likely (5.00 / 4) (#40)
by speek on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 07:33:26 PM EST

His thoughts were, "I'd better get this one for me before the neighbors take it".

al queda is kicking themsleves for not knowing about the levees
[ Parent ]

Also see: fish quota's in the EU. (n/t) (5.00 / 3) (#53)
by LaundroMat on Fri Jan 17, 2003 at 06:56:39 AM EST


"These innocent fun-games of the hallucination generation"
[ Parent ]

The reason (5.00 / 1) (#72)
by ajduk on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 05:52:41 AM EST

Simply, a forest of a certain size will produce X amount of wood sustainably.  Now, if you use more than X (as they must have), the forest shrinks; but by the time you realise there is a serious problem, X has fallen below the amount you need for basics (cooking, housing, etc).

Now you are faced with either all agreeing to a much lower standard of living - or half the population starving - and letting the forest regenerate, or watching the forest vanish.

[ Parent ]

It WAS incredibly stupid... (5.00 / 4) (#22)
by mr strange on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 02:12:14 PM EST

...shame we're all making exactly the same mistake right now, in the modern world.

+1FP, if anyone doesn't know about the history of Easter Island, then they should.

intrigued by your idea that fascism is feminine - livus
[ Parent ]

They were k5ers (4.33 / 3) (#29)
by rantweasel on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 05:29:28 PM EST

They got too worked up over whether someone else was limiting their tree-cutting rights to notice that they were down to one tree.  It's a little known fact that they were using SUVs that got 32 gallons per mile to haul these trees around the island, they were planning an invasion of another island for building statues of mass destruction, etc.


[ Parent ]

Yup (5.00 / 1) (#31)
by autopr0n on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 05:39:08 PM EST

Perhaps they didn't realize that new trees sprouted from old ones...

[autopr0n] got pr0n?
autopr0n.com is a categorically searchable database of porn links, updated every day (or so). no popups!
[ Parent ]
Hypothetical Situation (4.85 / 7) (#47)
by DarkZero on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 10:33:49 PM EST

Bird Tribesman: Chieftain, the forest is almost barren. Should we stop cutting and give it a year?

Bird Chieftain: No, it's alright. We shall move west and invade the Monkey Tribe, and we shall take their land.

Chop, chop, chop. Trees fall down. The Bird Tribe moves westward.

Bird Chieftain: Ummm... WTF happened to the Monkey Tribe forest?

Monkey Chieftain: Oh, hey! We were looking for you guys. We have run out of trees and must invade you!

Bird Chieftain: We don't have any trees. We were coming to invade you...

Monkey and Bird Chieftains: FUCK.

I'm told that this civilization had different competitive groups and that Easter Island was a somewhat generously sized (though not large) island. Therefore, rather than all of the islanders gathering together and recognizing the death of the last tree, two or more groups probably cut their last tree down and figured that they would just move on and the land would replenish itself in their absence, not knowing that other island groups had done the exact same thing.

[ Parent ]

Oh, God! (1.00 / 1) (#63)
by deniz on Fri Jan 17, 2003 at 11:04:37 PM EST

Won't somebody think of the children?!

[ Parent ]
I saw the same show (5.00 / 4) (#9)
by mreardon on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 12:18:00 PM EST

It was on the Beeb.

Excellent link! It includes a full transcript. (none / 0) (#23)
by mr strange on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 02:14:10 PM EST

intrigued by your idea that fascism is feminine - livus
[ Parent ]
Dr. Suess (5.00 / 1) (#18)
by deus777 on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 01:45:11 PM EST

This is somewhat off-topic, but this reminds me of the Dr. Suess book, "The Lorax". I never read the actual book, but when I was little I used to love to watch the animated version of it. People kept cutting down the trees, and pretty soon all of the animals were gone too, and then nothing was left. Of course, in "The Lorax" I think there was a happy ending, there was one seed left that somebody planted, or something.

The Lorax versus Treebeard... (none / 0) (#24)
by BlaisePascal on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 04:19:33 PM EST

Does anyone know if "The Lorax" has been rewritten featuring Treebeard (from Lord of the Rings?).

[ Parent ]
"UNLESS." (5.00 / 1) (#43)
by Repton on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 08:10:10 PM EST

The Lorax said nothing. Just gave me a glance...
just gave me a very sad, sad backward glance...
as he lifted himself by the seat of his pants.

And I'll never forget the grim look on his face
when he heisted himself and took leave of this place,
through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.

And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pike of rocks, with the one word...


Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn't guess.


"But now," says the Once-ler,
"Now that you're here,
the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.

UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It's not.


Catch!" calls the Once-ler.
He lets something fall.

"It's a Truffula Seed.
It's the last one of all!
You're in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
And Truffular Trees are what everyone needs.

Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.

Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back."

[hmm... fair use?]

They say that only an experienced wizard can do the tengu shuffle..
[ Parent ]

Dr. Seuss and Sonny Bono (none / 0) (#56)
by pin0cchio on Fri Jan 17, 2003 at 02:32:03 PM EST

[hmm... fair use?]

I boycott the works of Theodor Seuss Geisel because Seuss Enterprises submitted an amicus brief in favor of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.


[ Parent ]
I had no idea! (3.00 / 1) (#60)
by mcherm on Fri Jan 17, 2003 at 05:34:03 PM EST

I had no idea! That's TERRIBLE!

-- Michael Chermside
[ Parent ]
the sad part being... (none / 0) (#66)
by radish on Sun Jan 19, 2003 at 02:46:22 AM EST

that Theodore Geisel would almost certainly have opposed that.

[ Parent ]
interesting (4.33 / 3) (#28)
by shenanigans on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 05:28:24 PM EST

When the last tree fell, everybody knew it was the last tree. But it still fell.

I've thought about this many times on a global level. Overpopulation, greenhouse effect, energy consumption. Everyone has heard statistics that describe how quickly we are reproducing/burning/consuming towards disaster. Obviously they haven't really affected everyone enough to slow down. I wonder when stricter legislation will start appearing.

The 29th Day (4.50 / 2) (#42)
by Thomas M Hughes on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 07:55:03 PM EST

I believe there was a book on a subject similar to this, called the Twenty Ninth Day: Accomodating Human Needs and Numbers to the Earths Resources.  The Author proposes a metaphor of a lake, that is covered with lilly pads.  Every day, the number of lilly pads doubles, and you know that it takes exactly 30 days for the lilly pads to cover the entire lake.  On what day is half of the lake covered?

On the 29th day of course.  That means the lake is half covered, while at the same time, half open and usable.  It looks like something bad is happening, but, clearly, the lake has gone 29 days only making some progress.  It can survive a bit longer without action.  The population doubles again and suddenly, you're out of lake, with no warning.

The same could be said for arguments about natural resources.  As consumption keeps increasing, our supply gets diminished faster.  While our limited supply has been diminishing slowly overtime, if we continue to re-double our efforts to consume them, one day we'll just run out, and it will come quite unexpectedly.  The arguments against this thesis claim that we can easily just find new sources of natural resources to supply our consumption habits, and that when things do start getting rare, the market will correct by raising the prices for these natural resources.

Though, that market correction will probably involve large numbers of the world completely lacking any transportation at all, aside from bikes and walking.  This is of course, if we're talking about oil.  This scenario, of Easter Island is about trees.  But I think the analogy still works.

The statues get bigger, you need more trees to move the statues, you cut down trees faster and faster to meet your rising needs for larger statues.  While raising your largest statue yet, you need tons of trees, more then you've ever needed before.  Finally, you erect your statue, and there are few to no trees left.  The supported these consumptive habits for years, but the rate of depletion grew too high for the ecology to support.

[ Parent ]

Blah... (4.00 / 2) (#33)
by /dev/trash on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 05:58:29 PM EST

I'll always believe Thor Heyerdahl's thesis on Easter Island propagation.

But you can't really dispute the DNA can ya?

Updated 02/20/2004
New Site

Polynesian motif (5.00 / 1) (#34)
by melia on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 06:03:36 PM EST

It's a little bit of DNA that only Polynesians have, and it's been found in the bones of islanders.

That Thor fella was mighty brave though... 2000 miles is such a lot of sea...
Disclaimer: All of the above is probably wrong
[ Parent ]

Thor's theory is not yet 100% refuted (5.00 / 1) (#67)
by aleodor on Sun Jan 19, 2003 at 01:30:14 PM EST

What I remember from reading Thor's book. Please take it with a grain of salt, it was 15 years ago.

Thor describes TWO racial groups on the island, based on oral tradition. One coming from South America (LongEars) and one from Polinezia (ShortEars). With different cultures and different society roles. His theory is that the South American group was a sort of rulers minorty. Supposedly they also were building the statues.

At some point there were a genocidical war between them (i don't recall exactly what fuelled it) and the South American group was completely wiped out. Thor actually was able to match oral history of the 'last stand battle' with a small peninsula of the island where he found some remnants of the defences. The other thing that puzzled him was the cavern system and the artifacts found in them. Thor's era inhabitants seem to avoid caverns as 'bad omen bringers', and carved no similar artifacts (perhaps nowadays they do for the tourist industry). The carving themselves didn't look too polinezian either.

Some Internet research shows that there are still some mysteries which may support Thor's theory: 'enigma of sweet potato', which originates from South America and was found in Easter Island and 'superb stonework' resembling Inca walls, with no correspondent in the rest of Polynezia.

If the DNA testing shows them as Polinezians, that just fits Thor's theory. What would be more interesting would be see if the DNA testing can't trace some South American genes, too. If such a thing as 'South American genes' exists ;-)

[ Parent ]

cool (4.50 / 2) (#35)
by turmeric on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 06:14:31 PM EST

cool story. ah but i have a quesiton, its basically how do you know that the trees were cut down? perhaps there was a tree disease or something? or a change in climate? furthermore you say 'palm trees' were being used for canoes, now i am no biology expert but afaik palm trees are not really a 'tree' species, they are actually separate.... and frankly ive never seen one that would make a good canoe, all the canoes i have seen in books are made from other types of tree. anyways, that bird man thing is very interesting.

also a comparison to mt rushmore (4.83 / 6) (#37)
by turmeric on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 06:20:08 PM EST

now, i dont know what people will think of mount rushmore in 1000 years but if they think 'americans worshipped dead white guys' they might be right. but not all of us are like that. furthermore, take all the stalin statues that got torn down in the soviet union .... were they deciding they hate 'their gods' or did they just hate the political leadership and were glad it was gone? you know what i mean? did the stone builders become a technocratic elite and the masses got fed up with it and turned them over? was it kids out on a prank to rebel a little bit? who knows?

[ Parent ]
good questions... (5.00 / 1) (#38)
by melia on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 06:27:59 PM EST

Well they know they were palm trees because they found pollen in lake beds. They drilled down in the lake beds, and as they went progressively back through time they started to find palm tree pollen, the concentration of which gradually increased.

I really can't answer the questions about how they know the trees were cut down with any authority. However, the island is so far away from anywhere else, it's hard to see how a new disease could have got to the island and killed the trees. Apparently the islanders landed in AD700,and the disaster is dated in the 1600s - bit of a long gestation period!

As far as climate change is concerned i'd guess that whoever came up with this theory discounted evidence for climate change, possibly using the same method as they used to get the pollen...

pure speculation though!
Disclaimer: All of the above is probably wrong
[ Parent ]

Alternative theory? (4.00 / 1) (#41)
by scheme on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 07:40:00 PM EST

For canoes at least I would suspect that they that a source of hardwood trees. Palm trees, at least the ones I've seen, have fibrous trunks and would probably tend to absorb water. They would probably make for poor canoes unless you covered the entire surface with a water proofing treatment.

The Hawaiians for example used koa, and kukui (both hardwoords) for their canoes. I suspect that the easter islanders brought some seeds for hardwoods or found some hardwoods on the island already.

"Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity." --Albert Einstein

[ Parent ]
if humans could get there (none / 0) (#48)
by turmeric on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 10:56:46 PM EST

disease could get there

[ Parent ]
cool (4.00 / 2) (#49)
by turmeric on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 10:58:12 PM EST

this is the real cool stuff type of science/geography/etc. all that nuclear slashdot crap is so pointless and stupid in comparison.

[ Parent ]
Rapa Nui (4.50 / 2) (#39)
by CtrlBR on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 07:04:01 PM EST

There's a movie on the end of the monolith building culture, not bad but not an history course either.

If no-one thinks you're a freedom fighter than you're probably not a terrorist.
-- Gully Foyle

Recycling (3.00 / 1) (#44)
by iLurk on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 08:56:28 PM EST

Why couldn't they reuse the wood used to move statues? Was there something wrong with the wood after it moved the first statue?

The Trees (4.00 / 1) (#45)
by The Verb on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 09:59:19 PM EST

Trees rot. Many of them broke or were crushed under the weight of the heavy statues.

Also, the social climate at the time was one of competition, not cooperation, so trees that had been used by one 'tribe' were often destroyed to prevent theft by other tribes who had fewer trees.

It was not a happy place.


[ Parent ]

Ancestor worship? (4.42 / 7) (#46)
by cdyer on Thu Jan 16, 2003 at 10:03:24 PM EST

Good article. There's just one bit I'm not sure I agree with:

What was the purpose of these objects? There is a clue. One of the words used by modern Islanders to describe the objects - "aringa ora" means "the living faces of our ancestors". The islanders were ancestor worshippers.

It does seem possible that they were ancestor worshippers, but it seems just as likely (to me anyway) that the modern islanders call them that, because their ancestors built them. So the standing stones are the living face of the people that built them, in the way that, say, Crime and Punishment is the living face of Dostoevsky. I don't think we should necessarily jump to the conclusion that the name the present day islanders use is the same as the one used hundreds and hundrends of years ago. It's possible, but not proved.

Cheers, Cliff

a good book on Polynesian history (none / 0) (#50)
by danny on Fri Jan 17, 2003 at 12:06:30 AM EST

I haven't read anything specifically on Easter Island, but if you're after a book on the Polynesian settlement of the Pacific Islands, I highly recommend Patrick Vinton Kirch's On the Road of the Winds (the link is to my review). That made it into my best books list.

[900 book reviews and other stuff]

Late at night? (4.00 / 2) (#54)
by werty on Fri Jan 17, 2003 at 07:57:58 AM EST

It was on at 21:00!

Do you turn into a pumpkin at midnight?

hehe (5.00 / 1) (#57)
by melia on Fri Jan 17, 2003 at 02:38:10 PM EST

It was the deaf version, at about 4am. There's something very soothing about sign language you know. I wish i could learn it. Maybe somebody on K5 can do a series!
Disclaimer: All of the above is probably wrong
[ Parent ]
Rapa Nui (4.50 / 2) (#55)
by perryspeed on Fri Jan 17, 2003 at 11:39:23 AM EST

For those interested in learning more about Easter Island, a good startingpoint would be Aku Aku by Thor Heyerdahl. Cheap copies are easily found on eBay.

For fishing, the natives used reed boats rather than wooden canoes. Reed was quite abundant in one of the volcano lakes.

Thor had heard stories of two different types of people on the island, the "short ears" and the "long ears". The "long ears" had a more european appearance, fairer skin and reddish hair, while the "short ears" had a more polynesian appearance. The "long ears" are said to have driven the building of the Moai, using the "short ears" as labor. Eventually the "short ears" revolted, killing almost all of the "long ears" and toppling all the Moai that stood on Ahus. This is said to be the reason why Moai construction stopped, and the civilization became more savage.

then why fewer fish bones? (5.00 / 1) (#62)
by svillee on Fri Jan 17, 2003 at 09:44:53 PM EST

For fishing, the natives used reed boats rather than wooden canoes.

This would poke a hole in my theory. But melia says

However, gradually, over time, fewer bird bones, and fewer fish bones, were found.

Does Thor Heyerdahl dispute this? If not, why would there be fewer fish bones if there was plenty of reed to build fishing boats?

[ Parent ]

Why the focus on wood? (none / 0) (#68)
by owenh on Sun Jan 19, 2003 at 05:56:37 PM EST

This seems to be a classic tail of over-utilisation of resources due to a climbing population. More people use more resources, until the resources run out, famine ensues, people starve, population drops until there are enough resources to support it.

Why the focus on wood? Sure a blooming population could easily cut down all the trees, but they are equally capable of hunting bird species to extinction and overfishing coastal waters.

A nice little article. It doesn't present any convincing argument that a fascination with stone monoliths caused a ecological crisis and population crash, but its one theory. I am interested in learning more about Easter Island.
-- Observations of the world we live in
[ Parent ]

Long Ears (none / 0) (#65)
by hengist on Sat Jan 18, 2003 at 07:18:28 PM EST

The description you give of the long ears is interesting - a Maori friend of mine told me about stories of the earlier inhabitants of the South Island of NZ, who were described as having fair skin and ginger hair.

Perhaps the long ears and the early South Islanders were both descedents of an eariler wave of polynesian expansion, who were then displaced or assimilated by the groups that became the short ears and modern Maori.

Incidentally, Rapanuian, the language of Easter Island, is definitely a Polynesian langauge, related to Maori, Hawaiian and Marquesan.

There can be no Pax Americana
[ Parent ]

Props (4.50 / 2) (#58)
by Anonymous 7324 on Fri Jan 17, 2003 at 03:27:56 PM EST

I just took a course on SE Asian cultures, including a long study on Easter Island. Your writeup is entirely accurate -- wonderful stuff. Congrats!

The only other point to add is that while Thor Hyerdahl's theory of origination from South America was discredited, architectural styles seem to indicate some trade and sharing of knowledge with the South American Indians of the time.

Rongorongo (4.66 / 6) (#59)
by 5s for Everyone on Fri Jan 17, 2003 at 05:26:10 PM EST

With all of this talk about Easter Island, it's surprising nobody's mentioned rongorongo.

Rongorongo is the native script of Easter Island-- the islanders must have needed to write down things more than the natives of the surrounding islands. However, what the hieroglyphs represent exactly has been lost to time, presumably after the civil war described in this article.

It would be very interesting if we could decipher these tablets today, but unfortunately, only the smallest of tiny advances have been made-- like finding small portions which appear to be geneaologies or lunar calendars.

If the rongorongo could be deciphered, we could likely unravel the whole mystery of Easter Island.
There is Damezumari in the Bamboo Joint

Very unlikely to happen. (4.50 / 2) (#64)
by porkchop_d_clown on Sat Jan 18, 2003 at 12:07:11 PM EST

I agree, but the tragedy is there there will never be a "Rosetta Stone" to allow us to translate their language - and without such a thing (or some very unlikely advance in "deep linguistics") we aren't going to figure it out.

Wouldn't it be a victory for the oppressed people of Iraq, of North Korea, of Iran, if their police-state regimes were overthrown? Even by a cowbo
[ Parent ]

maybe trees cut down mainly for survival (4.66 / 3) (#61)
by svillee on Fri Jan 17, 2003 at 09:12:15 PM EST

As the mania for statue building increased, more and more trees were cut down.

Many writers about Easter Island seem to assume that the islanders cut down the trees primarily to move the statues, and thus their obsession with statues was their undoing.

Isn't it possible that trees were used for various purposes, many of which were a matter of survival, e.g., building and repairing canoes needed for fishing? Perhaps statue moving was a relatively minor drain on the available tree supply.

Among the references, I couldn't find any statement of the total number of statues, but apparently it was more than 500. How many trees did it take to move each statue? Multiply by 500+ and you get the total cost in trees of their statue obsession.

Now consider how often canoes would need to be repaired or replaced, given the "massive waves constantly battering the coastline". How many trees would be needed to build each canoe?

If trees were essential to survival, this strikes me as a more plausible explanation as to why even when the forests were visibly depleted, the islanders continued to cut down trees.

Anyway, thanks for the article on this fascinating subject.

Other conoe building societies worked (none / 0) (#69)
by Edgy Loner on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 02:22:18 PM EST

Elsewhere in the Pacific other societies very similar to the one on Easter Island flourished without depleteing their forests. They however, didn't have statue cults. It seesm reasonable that the enviromental load imposed by the culture itself (canoe buliding, housing, firewood etc) could be sustained, but the combined load of the statue building and general day to day living couldn't.

This is not my beautiful house.
This is not my beautiful knife.
[ Parent ]
interested in examples (none / 0) (#70)
by svillee on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 07:55:16 PM EST

I'd really like to hear about examples of societies that survived for an extended period in isolation with limited resources. As it happens, this is a strong personal interest of mine.

Thanks in advance for any pointers you can provide.

[ Parent ]

All of Polynesia / Micronesia? (none / 0) (#71)
by Edgy Loner on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 10:31:02 PM EST

Was kind of what I had in mind. Granted the islands were closer together than Easter Island, but the they didn't completely deforest them either.

This is not my beautiful house.
This is not my beautiful knife.
[ Parent ]
Easter Island | 72 comments (50 topical, 22 editorial, 1 hidden)
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