Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui) has become symbolic of the potential for the environment to cause societal collapse (e.g., Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel). But there’s a new book, The Statues That Walked by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo (which I haven’t read yet) that argues otherwise. From Science:
Combining new dating from excavations at key sites and a reassessment of previous work, they conclude that humans arrived only about 1200 CE. Their revision fits much better with dates for the expansion of Polynesian settlement to other far-flung locations such as Hawaii and New Zealand. Rats that also traveled on the boats fed on the nuts of the island’s giant Jubaea palm and over 600 years helped drive them to extinction. Rather than degenerating into warfare, the islanders responded to deforestation by developing an effective gardening system aided by small walled gardens enhanced by composting and stone mulching. This productive use of stones provided a sustainable subsistence despite the harsh effects of unpredictable and low levels of rainfall, no permanent water sources, and high, drying winds.
And the statues? Well:
Hunt and Lipo favor a previous hypothesis that statues were “walked” vertically, just as one person can move a refrigerator by tilting and twisting. New evidence for the existence of a system of roads across the island with just the right angles for moving upright statues up and down slopes supports their view. An important implication is that the movement and erection of moai, even those weighing many tonnes, could be achieved by a small group of people.
And there’s a different explanation for the collapse:
No Rapa Nui story would be complete without a catastrophe. In this telling, that was generated by the arrival of Europeans. Drawing on early Dutch accounts, Hunt and Lipo argue that Rapanui culture had not succumbed to environmental disaster by the early part of the 18th century but was flourishing because it was well adapted to the limited resources on the island. As in other revisions of early European contact…, they paint a positive picture in which goods introduced by the visitors became “the new costly signals communicating access to new wealth and technology.” Responding to opportunities, the islanders created rituals focused on European boats and items that diverted their attention from the moai, which quickly collapsed largely through neglect rather than warfare. Ultimately, collapse was inevitable as disease led to massive population decline, which, when combined with slavery and other abuses, led to social disintegration.
I’m sticking with ‘kidnapped by space aliens’ though….