Today, we read a disturbing lesson in the record of
Easter Island. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Easter Island, with its
huge, long-faced statues, looking inland, their
backs to the sea, has long been a trouble to our
minds. For years people sorted through that barren
species-depleted patch of land, trying to figure
out what went wrong.
The Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen landed there in
1722 and found a 50-square-mile wasteland peopled
by 2000 Polynesians. Traditionally, Polynesians are
fine sailors who've ranged the Pacific in their
sleek canoes. But these islanders rode small leaky
canoes patched together from bits of wood. They had
to cling to the shore. Deep-sea fishing was out of
Physiologist Jared Diamond tells how their main
meat supply was chicken. Nothing else of any size
lived on the island. No land birds -- not even
bats, snails, or lizards. Only 47 higher plant
species -- grasses, ferns, two kinds of small tree,
two woody shrubs. The place, quite simply, was an
ecological disaster area.
Yet all those great statues of the same gaunt human
face! Four hundred were finished. Five hundred more
had been abandoned in various states of completion.
The finished ones were as tall as 33 feet. One,
still in the quarry, was to have been 65 feet tall
-- a 240-ton monolith. These are the works of a
strong, energetic people. What could've happened to
Archaeologists and anthropologists have gradually
extracted the sad story of Easter Island. It goes
By 800 AD, Polynesian sailors had discovered a
subtropical forest here. They settled in and made
canoes from the great 80-foot palm trees. They
farmed the land and the supplemented their diet
with porpoise which they fished in the open sea.
They also used the trees to fashion rigging for
their heroic stoneworks. They called this rich and
abundant land, Rapa Nui.
As they used slash and burn methods to clear the
land and as they consumed wood, the trees thinned.
Monument building became competitive -- an
expression of personal power in the face of
diminishing resources. The rat population rose.
People attacked the trees and rats attacked their
seeds. The high culture of Easter Island peaked
around 1400. By 1500, Porpoise bones vanished from
Easter Island garbage dumps. Easter Islanders began
eating rats, snails, lizards, and finally, one
another. When Roggeveen arrived in 1722, the people
were living in caves, at war with each other.
It's a harrowing story for us as we use up our
resources, build monuments, and wage war. Is the
fate of Easter Island to be our own fate? These
people didn't bring extinction upon
themselves. Nature doesn't always exact such a
clear price when we're unwise. Their punishment for
folly was instead to live, thereafter, eking out a
life on the mere fringe of survival.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds