Reconsidering the Easter Island Collapse (and the Irony of Jared Diamond’s Interpretation of It)

Barbara King recently asked “Why Does Jared Diamond Make Anthropologists So Mad?” It’s not my place to speak for anthropologists (I’m not Mike the Mad Anthropologist), but I do know what has made me very skeptical of Diamond’s claims: his take on Easter Island’s collapse. The explanation of Easter Island’s collapse is one of man’s rapaciousness. Palm trees, which were essential to the Easter Island economy were misused and overharvested, in part to serve the wasteful practice of moai building. It’s a compelling tale: ecological degradation to serve the false vanities and ideologies of the powerful, with the denouement of a forlorn Islander staring at the Last Tree, Pondering the Futility That is Man. A message for our times.

Except that’s not what happened according to recent archaeological work.

A while ago, I mentioned a review of The Statues That Walked by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo which revisits the Futility of Man hypothesis. I finally got around to reading it (I’m a little behind…), and I recommend it highly. There are several key pieces of evidence that require reconsidering the traditional collapse story:

1) The palms disappeared about a century after colonization, and the island’s population increased.

2) The palms were extinguished by rat predation on the seeds, not human overharvesting.

3) There was other vegetation on the island that could be used pre-collapse (the windswept appearance is the effect of sheep-grazing).

4) While not edenic, through some very clever farming techniques (using rock gardens as windbreaks), the Islanders were able to create a functioning and viable agricultural system.

5) The moai could be moved (and were likely moved) using ropes, not palm logs.

So what did cause the Easter Island collapse? Ironically, the title of Diamond’s book: guns, germs, and steel. First, diseases, including venereal disease, weakened the population, and were then followed by heavily armed slavers. Easter Isalnd was ecologically vulnerable in the sense that once the society was disrupted (i.e., massive population loss), it would have been very difficult to recover due to the harsh ecology and the inability to migrate elsewhere (or acquire other resources).

Makes me wonder what else doesn’t quite fit in Diamond’s work.

Anyway, I highly recommend The Statues That Walked.

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3 Responses to Reconsidering the Easter Island Collapse (and the Irony of Jared Diamond’s Interpretation of It)

  1. onkelbob says:

    I think what drives anthropologists crazy is that Jared Diamond is always interesting and sometimes right. Conversely, anthropologists are usually right but hardly ever interesting. As a result the wider populace like to read and believe his explanations and ignore the Mandarins and Nabobs of academia.

  2. Lindsay says:

    Wow, thanks for that bit of fact-checking! I read Collapse and found it weird (though not unbelievable, given current practices in *THIS* culture) that they would just keep building the moai as the trees dwindled.

    This explanation makes more sense.

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