Go Visit Longnow.com, and a Different Theory About Easter Island

Too busy to blog much right now, so go visit Longnow.com. Lots of good seminars there on a variety of topics. The videos are subscriber-only, but the summaries are good and you can listen to the MP3 version under the Downloads tab.

I found it by way of an article about Richard Feynman’s involvement in Thinking Machines Corporation. (If you don’t know who Richard Feynman is, eat 10 packs of Ramen without the flavor clod, then find a copy or Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman or What Do You Care What Other People Think? He’s turning out to be one of the more relevant figures in 20th century science culture.

I liked the seminar on Easter Island. The traditional Easter Island narrative is an ecological morality play:

  • The stupid Maori people spent all their time building statues in a fit of vanity.
  • The stupid Maori cut down their forests for the logs needed to move the statues.
  • The stupid Maori spent the rest of their time and resources in intra-island warfare.
  • Stupid Maori were stupid.

Anthropologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo’s talk presents a different view:

  • There’s no archaeological evidence of inter-Maori warfare prior to European exploration. No fortifications. No battle-related injuries on skeletal remains. Their primitive stone implements had the blunt tips of tools instead of the pointed tips you would expect of weapons.
  • The Maori moved the statues with ropes, not logs, so deforestation had nothing to do with the statues. Their experiments seem to support this. Besides, how many freakin’ logs do you need to move some statues? Not enough to deforest an island. (Wikipedia notes that some suggest the Little Ice Age of 1650 to 1850 contributed to the decline of native trees.)
  • Based on carbon dating, Hunt and Lipo propose that Easter Island was colonized around 1200 AD, rather than other estimates which put the date as early as 300 AD.
  • They posit that the deforestation was caused by the introduction of rats from European ships – the rats ate the trees’ nuts. From a study quoted on Wikipedia: “Rat teeth marks can be observed in 99% of the nuts found preserved in caves or excavated in different sites, indicating that the Polynesian rat impeded the palm’s reproduction.”
  • The depopulation was largely a result of the resulting deforestation combined with diseases introduced by European explorers such as tuberculosis and smallpox, combined with later slaving raids from Peru on the island’s reduced population.
  • The apocryphal overpopulation to 30,000 inhabitants never happened. That makes sense – indigenous populations are unlikely to exceed their historical resources. It isn’t like they can ask their central bank to print money to buy food from another country.

True or fales, since Easter Island makes such a pat simple ecological ghost story I expect the old narrative to be defended to the last man standing.

Comments are closed.