The Demise of Easter Island’s Eco-Collapse Parable

By Keith Kloor | January 21, 2014 2:48 pm

I have often asked myself, What was Jared Diamond thinking when he first learned that everything Easter Island symbolized to him might be wrong? Did the prize-winning, internationally celebrated writer ever look around at the accumulating evidence and think that maybe–just maybe–Easter Island isn’t the best metaphor for ecocide?

By all indications, Diamond has not allowed such doubts to enter his mind. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

In 1994, Diamond wrote in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society:

The greatest risk to humanity in coming decades is that we may continue to damage our environment to a degree where our current standard of living or even our existence becomes impossible. That dilemma has seemed a unique one in human history, a consequence of our uniquely high modern numbers, coupled with our uniquely destructive modern technology.

However, it is now being realized that many past societies did collapse through destroying their environmental underpinnings, and that we thus do have environmental lessons to learn from our past.

In the following year (1995), Diamond wrote in Discover magazine:

As we try to imagine the decline of Easter’s civilization, we ask ourselves, Why didn’t they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?

By now the meaning of Easter Island for us should be chillingly obvious. Easter Island is Earth writ small.

In 2003, Diamond gave a lecture called, “Why Do Some Societies make Disastrous Decisions?” recorded and transcribed by Edge. Here is a lengthy excerpt that discusses the questions that guided Diamond’s “collapse” thesis for Easter Island (emphasis mine):

Education is supposed to be about teachers imparting knowledge to students. As every teacher knows, though, if you have a good group of students, education is also about students imparting knowledge to their supposed teachers and challenging their assumptions. That’s an experience that I’ve been through in the last couple of months, when for the first time in my academic career I gave a course to undergraduates, highly motivated UCLA undergraduates, on collapses of societies. Why is it that some societies in the past have collapsed while others have not?

For example, the Easter Islanders, Polynesian people, settled an island that was originally forested, and whose forests included the world’s largest palm tree. The Easter Islanders gradually chopped down that forest to use the wood for canoes, firewood, transporting statues, raising statues, and carving and also to protect against soil erosion. Eventually they chopped down all the forests to the point where all the tree species were extinct, which meant that they ran out of canoes, they could no longer erect statues, there were no longer trees to protect the topsoil against erosion, and their society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism that left 90 percent of the islanders dead. The question that most intrigued my UCLA students was one that hadn’t registered on me: how on Earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which they depended? For example, my students wondered, what did the Easter Islanders say as they were cutting down the last palm tree?

Were they saying, think of our jobs as loggers, not these trees? Were they saying, respect my private property rights? Surely the Easter Islanders, of all people, must have realized the consequences to them of destroying their own forest. It wasn’t a subtle mistake. One wonders whether — if there are still people left alive a hundred years from now — people in the next century will be equally astonished about our blindness today as we are today about the blindness of the Easter Islanders.

Hmm. It seems to me that Diamond’s predisposed assumptions had already formed his thinking on Easter Island, which was given full expression in his 2005 bestsellerCollapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. In that book, he concludes that “the history of Easter Island is as close as we can get to a ‘pure’ ecological collapse.” The question of Easter Island’s “self-inflicted environmental damage” still nagged at him:

I have often asked myself, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?”

Diamond’s central assumption is that deforestation degraded the island’s ecosystem and left the inhabitants little means of sustenance. But as I write in a short piece in the upcoming issue of Cosmos magazine, “this portrait of prehistoric ecocide is cracking under a mounting body of scholarship.”

One of the first major challenges to Diamond’s popular narrative was mounted in this 2006 article in American Scientist by the archaeologist Terry Hunt. In 2009, an entire book taking aim Diamond’s case studies for Collapse was published. Entitled Questioning Collapse: Human resilience, ecological vulnerability, and the aftermath of empire, it stated that for Easter Island, “there is no evidence that the island represents a case of ‘ecocide’ where a large population crashed from environmental ruin before Europeans arrived.”

In 2011 Hunt and fellow archaeologist Carl Lipo also published a book-length rebuke to Diamond, which was the basis for this 2012 National Geographic cover story. My piece in Cosmos briefly discusses that book and more recent research by anthropologist Mara Mulrooney (whose work was covered last month in Science News and NPR, among other outlets.)

What these scholars have uncovered is a story not of eco-collapse but of remarkable resilience, made possible by the ingenuity of the prehistoric residents, who converted their island into an extensive network of agricultural fields. As I note in my piece:

Some years ago in a critical essay on Diamond’s book Collapse, anthropologist Joseph Tainter wrote: “Jared Diamond is a man with a message. Collapse was meant to tell how anthropogenic environmental degradation doomed past societies and, on a grander scale, will undermine us if we don’t change.”

There may well be something to this larger message, but it appears we will no longer find it expressed in the history of Easter Island.

Additional reading:

A recent paper in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution summarizes the latest paleoecological and archaeological research on Easter Island.

See this paper from several years ago, by Mulrooney and colleagues, which “reviewed the evidence for a pre-European societal collapse” on Easter Island.

Read the exchange between Diamond and Hunt and Lipo, which was hosted in 2011 by Mark Lynas at his blog.

Photo/credit: Wikipedia

  • http://pdiff.weebly.com/ Pdiff
  • mf

    According to Wikipedia (I am not an expert on Easter Island) the population dropped from ~15,000 to ~2,000 in about a century. Current population of ~5,800 includes ~60% of descendants of original people, or ~3,000 people.

    If these numbers are true, than it is clear that they might have been inventive towards the end, but they were hardly thriving. Their population dropped by a factor of seven in ~100 years. Obviously, if the population of the planet dropped by the same factor, from 7 billion to 1 billion, there would be a lot less of resource/environmental problem. But we would also probably call this event a human tragedy, write many sad songs and poems about it for centuries to come, as a population cannot drop by this much without severe trauma.

    So, are we arguing here about the definition of a collapse?

    • http://pdiff.weebly.com/ Pdiff

      Hunt and Lipo argue that the population was never that large to begin with and that “collapse” actually occurred post European contact, in a very short time period (~4 years) due to reasons seen elsewhere in the New World: disease (good evidence exists to support this idea). They further argue that the native inhabitants didn’t arrive until 1200 AD and inadvertently introduced a rat species that destroyed the dominant palm ecosystem. Even facing that problem, they were able to maintain population levels at sustainable levels through religious and cultural practices and traditions. Perhaps thriving is not a good term, but if Hunt and Lipo are correct, they were certainly surviving well enough.

    • Randy McDonald

      Recent analyses suggest that the population was never that large.

      http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/id.1002,y.0,no.,content.true,page.1,css.print/issue.aspx

      The huge collapse, it’s been known for some time, occurred in the 1860s, when Peruvian slavers took half of the island’s population to labour in their country’s guano mines, and returned the small minority of survivors including at least one person infected with smallpox. (Tuberculosis came from elsewhere.)

      • mf

        thank you both for the reply and education. My impression is that people will argue what the truth was for a long time, which is the way it has to be in archeology. No definite proof without a time machine.
        As far as applicability of this story to our current world, it applies either way. I do not subscribe to theories of a “collapse”, but neither do I subscribe to “all will be well because we are so inventive”. A sober look at basic numbers shows that current oil based civilization can not be extended to7 billion people. This is not even remotely debatable. The question really is what can replace it. It can either evolve technologically, or it may get stuck with 80% of people in permanent economic marginalization and relative poverty, even if they still get to eat.. This is the real dilemma for our children. Societies adapt, and to those born into the adapted state things seem natural enough. To those before them the result would seem like a horrific collapse.

        • Randy McDonald

          People may argue, sure. That’s no reason to dismiss new evidence as it comes up.

          In this particular case, it doesn’t look as if ecocide was responsible for any collapse in Easter Island. Genocide was. Easter Island is relevant as a paradigm only in the case of Earth facing inadvertent depopulation by Zeta Reticulan starfarers.

  • mem_somerville

    Do you have a license for shooting all the sacred cows?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Unlicensed, unsanctioned, and very much un-PC.

      • Bill C

        Keith,
        Have you actually read Collapse? I don’t really care if it turns out Diamond is wrong on Easter Island. Or what he’s like in an argument. The book is pretty analytical, and it doesn’t predict doom for civilization, it looks at many past civilizations that have disappeared and tries to draw inferences about “our” situation. A reader below comments about his discussion of Greenland from GGS (which I haven’t read) but it’s consistent with the one in Collaps (which I read maybe 4 years ago).
        It is very interesting to see the discussion on Lynas’ blog, where Michael Tobis among others show up to defend Diamond, leading me to wonder (in a somewhat Capt. Obvious fashion) if the backlash against Diamond is somewhat inflamed by the perceptions that the other side holds of the people who support Diamond.
        The rebuttal on Lynas’ blog reads like somebody from Real climate wrote it, just sayin’.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

          I have read Collapse. I also wouldn’t infer anything about perceptions of Diamond based on what a handful of combatants write in the comment thread of a post.

          In the world at large, though, Diamond has has many detractors as he has admirers.

          • J M

            My main objection to this ecocide narrative is the use of histories of pre-industrial, sometimes marginal societies as “lessons” to modern world. These people lived a Malthusian existence which is hardly relevant today.

            If Diamond really wanted to tackle this issue from a modern perspective, the Sahel area or Horn of Africa offer plenty of material. Niger, for example, had a population of 5.5 million in 1980. Today the population is 16 million. All living next Sahara, with dwindling resources and periodic droughts, locusts and other calamities. A train-wreck in slow motion.

            Of course, tackling the problems of modern Africa and their sources even theoretically will mean stepping seriously on somebody’s toes (and I do not mean a couple of archaeologists). A danger that does not exist with long-dead Norse, Maya or Polynesians.

          • Thomas Fuller

            Keith, have you read Thor Heyerdahl’s book?

        • Joshua

          BillC -

          Are you talking to me again,, or still in I have no credibility mode?

          Anyway,

          “The rebuttal on Lynas’ blog reads like somebody from Real climate wrote it,”

          What does that mean?

          Also interesting was going to Tobis’ blog to see the discussion there. A lot of same ol’ same ol’, but also some interesting information that refutes Hunt’s and Lipo’s analysis (and interesting responses from them to those rebuttals).

        • JH

          Well, Bill, if you really want to get into the “climate collapse” narrative, yes, it’s an integral part of the Climate Concerned doom narrative.

          Our local paper recently reprinted a piece by Thomas Freidmann (NYT) implying that the war in Syria is a direct consequence of climate change. In TF’s view, the stage was set for the war by drought conditions in Syria, which pushed people from their failing farms into the city.

          But to make this narrative work you have to toss both Diamond’s conclusions and most of the real data about climate change out the window. So even the Climate Concerned Doomers abuse Diamond’s work.

          What would Diamond say about the relationship between the drought and the war in Syria? Presumably, he’d say that, insofar as they’re related, the drought didn’t cause the war. The war was caused by an inept government response to 1) the drought conditions; and 2) the initial uprising.

          Now, even all of that presumes that the drought conditions were caused by “Climate Change” as opposed to just being caused by regular old natural variations in climate. But, unfortunately for the doomers, the latter is the most likely explanation in Syria.

          So you see the complex web of relationships here among the various political factions with respect to Diamond. First, you have to make some unwarranted leaps of faith about what’s actually happening in the climate. Second, you have to ignore most of what Diamond says actually causes collapse (poor government).

          • Bill C

            JH,
            I don’t have the book fresh enough in my memory to say WWJD about Syria, but I mostly agree with your comment upthread about its point.

  • Buddy199

    The stronger your ideology, the more you’re predisposed to only see facts that bolster your ideology and ignore anything to the contrary. You’d think ideology would form only after a thoughtful examination of the facts. Fat chance. Once an authority figure leaves the first impression in your young plaster of Paris brain for most people that’s the end of the story.

    • Thomas Mills

      Very well stated. You have hit the nail on the proverbial head.

    • dafirestar

      Your point is a strong one, we all do that from time to time. Putting blinders on and simply make circumstances fitting your theory is dangerous to truth. To write an entire book based upon a theory of civilization collapse that is all but proven to be in error within a short time of your research is a tough pill to swallow. “The world needs bartenders”, to quote Alec Baldwin from the movie Departed.

  • johnwerneken

    The whole history of risk avoidance, community oriented politics, and environmental hysteria is entirely a tissue of lies. Not one truth in any.

  • GaelanClark

    Did the island ever have forests?

    • 013090

      From what I’ve read, it did have palm forests but it didn’t suffer a catastrophic decline but a very slow decline over a millenia, along with additional harm from invasive rat species. Either way, this theory posits that even without the palm forests the civilazation on Easter island was very stable up to the time of European contact and could have remained so. The rapid collapse only occurred due to that contact.

      • GaelanClark

        Were the forests present when the Euro’s arrived?

        • John_Smith_57_p

          The forest was gone well before the Europeans arrived. A palm tree forest covered the island when the Polynesians arrived.

          But the rats that arrived with them ate the palm nuts and kept the trees from reproducing. Plus the Polynesians burned the remaining trees to clear the ground and fertilize it. At least that’s the theory.

          Apparently, the same pattern happened on Hawaii and other islands colonized by Polynesians.

          • GaelanClark

            And herein lies the problem…..is it one theory against the other?

            Is it fair to criticize Diamond so vociferously if his “theory” is as supportable as any other?

            Also, a broader and unstated issue with civilizations such as Easter Island was “religion”. How much of the “collapse” was a result of not being able to build huge statues? Were prior leaders killed because they couldn’t make anymore? Would this killing of people have left the larger community to suffer under less able persons?

            Conjecture, conjecture, conjecture……and it really doesn’t undermine Diamond, though it helps him because not even those positing new scenarios are just theorizing from their own “assumptions”.

            Is it wrong to write that last sentence?

        • 013090

          No, the large palm forests were gone by that time.

  • J M

    I have not read Collapse but I have Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (GGS) and I think it is a good book.

    It looks like Diamond is contradicting his earlier writing and findings in Collapse. GGS argues that geographical and environmental conditions contribute to success of societies. Eurasians conquered the world because they had more domesticable animals species and plants at their disposal, as well as the greatest landmass, mild climatic zone and greatest populations (contributed to competition and innovation and killer germs). Australian aborigines had relatively little usable landmass, small population, very few domesticable animals and plants and they lived in isolation, which meant that they were doomed to remain primitive. Or decimated, once Europeans with their superior technology and germs arrived.

    The general message of the book is that small, geographically isolated societies with little resources are doomed to be conquered or wiped out. Resources and technology decide survival.

    Diamond wrote of the Norse settlement in Greenland as an example of failed colonization attempt due hostile environment and lack of resources and support, not as an example of ecocide.:

    “Most of Greenland is covered by an ice cap, and even the most favorable coastal fjords were marginal for Norse food production. The Greenland Norse population never exceeded a few thousand. It remained dependent on imports of food and iron from Norway, and of timber from Labrador coast….. Greenland could not support a self-sufficient food-producing society….In the Little Ice Age that began in the 13th century, the cooling of the North Atlantic made food production in Greenland, and Norse voyaging to Greenland from Norway or Iceland, even more marginal than before.”

    In GSS, Diamond regards small, isolated communities as the designated losers in competition between societies. In Collapse, they apparently become the blueprint for the future of the planet? A very curious development.

  • Selena Akerley

    “Remarkable resilience, made possible by ingenuity”! HMMMMMM!!!! Sounds remarkably like a virus, bacteria, or a parasite!
    They, themselves, the Easter Islanders, have MANY stories of the mass starvation and cannibalism that the last few inhabitants of the island had barely survived due to the deforestation of their island!!! As a Native American, I’m always thoroughly disgusted that some high and mighty idiot will come along and say, “NOPE, NOPE!! Your just a bunch of stupid savages and WE are going to tell YOU about your history. Because your just so stupid, you couldn’t POSSIBLY know anything!” The Native Easter Islanders say that their ancestors screwed up! They admit it!

    • http://pdiff.weebly.com/ Pdiff

      I’m sure they do have those stories. Dieing from small pox, syphilis, and associated starvation would be unimaginably horrific. The cause of those tragedies, however, had little to do with the native people themselves. It is ironic you point your finger at a “high and mighty” outsider claiming they were stupid, when in fact, the people examining the question came to the exact opposite conclusion.

  • GaelanClark

    Diamond discussed various “collapse”s over time across the planet. In particular, he also discussed the native Southwestern USA Indian populations which (apparently) destroyed forests, he discussed mining operations in Montana that (apparently) destroyed very fertile growing regions, and he discussed central American populations that (apparently) over utilized hillside growing areas which caused those areas to eventually slide onto the populations living below. (I am paraphrasing his work to say the least.) Are all of these instances charlatanism on Diamonds behalf or does he hold ground with his “assumptions” on those particular “collapse”s?

    What I got out of his book was that when groups of people do things for their immediate benefit, it can have long-term consequences. In fact, what I gathered from his writings was that a greater reason of “collapse” in the areas that he highlighted was caused by ignorance….which i find hard to argue with. I could be wrong, and so could Diamond.

    Is he, with regards to the other instances that he illuminated in his book “Collapse”?

    013090–thank you for your response. I am not being obtuse with my follow-up question. I am just trying to grasp a foundation upon which to understand the attack on Diamond and, in this instance particularly, if his Easter Island surmise has any basis in reality.

    I fully know the disease induced collapse of the Aztec, Maya and other civilizations in central America. I am less aware of this happening on Easter Island, which does not mean that I disagree with that line of thought.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    how on Earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which they depended?” Religion does it handily, whether celebrating a hairy thunderer, diversity, or Al Gore. The only real world solutions are engineering solutions. Social solutions are lethal madness. Redirected stupidity is not intelligence, whatever its talents for presentation.

    If Dear Reader finds the word “religion” to be offensive, substitute “advertising.” Both instill desire absent need – for a price.

    • Norbrook

      More seriously, just look at today. We are dependent on a number of resources, and we generally “cut down” all of them at one point or another.

    • Martin

      I don’t find using the term ‘religion’ for this offensive, but I do think it’s lazy.

      For a start it’s a bit of a Dawkins-stereotype / strawman of what religion is, and for a second it’s a sort of catch-all for not being rational in the way that the speaker thinks we should be rational.

  • hcat

    Very interesting. Now let’s have an update on the decline of the Hohokam – something that weighs heavily on Arizonans today.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      You can start here with Craig Childs:

      http://www.hcn.org/issues/344/16939

      • hcat

        Thanks, dude. I remember when I read Guns, Germs, and Steel, I thought Diamond was following in the geographical predestination or geographical “intelligent design” path of Guyot.

  • Tom Scharf

    Oh boy, you are going to need the Secret Service or Environmental Witness Relocation program after this one.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Donald Baker

    OK. Why don’t we start at the end and work back. 90% of the population died. Why? Its as simple as that. Why?

  • JonFrum

    Decades ago, that wet leftie Stephen J. Gould wrote multiple essays warning against the desire to moralize from science/nature. Of course, his targets were always conservative ideals, and conservatives who denied that their conservative biases affected their science. Anyone who didn’t (or doesn’t) see through Diamond’s transparent biases was (is) dim.

  • JH

    Keith,

    The Diamond thing is interesting from two perspectives:

    1) it shows how easy it is to twist data of pre-historic events into whatever meme one wishes to fulfill. This is true for both anthropological and geological data. And it’s true for two reasons: a) relative to the modern world, we have virtually no data about the pre-historic world. b) even if we had all the data we wanted in the modern world, we still wouldn’t be able to unequivocally determine the answers to these questions.

    2) The Easter Island narrative presented in Diamond’s book hardly matters. It’s one of many in the book. Even if you presume that it’s an invented case, the philosophy he develops toward societal collapse still holds. His basic contention – the whole point of the book – is to show that the problems that confront us are manageable. Whether they lead to “Collapse” or not depends entirely on our response to them.

    We don’t have to look very far to see this borne out in the modern world. In the US, the economic growth we generate gives us the flexibility to compensate people that are “injured” by natural disasters. Because we can do that, our society holds together. OTOH, look at Haiti or any number of other strife-ridden societies. Natural disasters throw them over the brink, time and time again.

    The whole Easter Island controversy is interesting from the POV of the scientific narrative, but it’s a tempest in a teapot with regards to the issues we face today and “societal collapse”. It’s a piss-poor test case anyway, because we have tens of much better described test-cases sitting right in front of our face in the modern world.

  • Lee Dwyer

    I don’t think that Diamonds point is less important. If you read all of his books he does great research , makes great observations and conclusions. Most societies over harvest or over use there resources. And the point of how societies should be stewards of their resources is something we reflect upon. Without question most advanced societies have Ben amazingly resourceful , even unimaginably creative with their developments. But now as then with all of the great technology and innovation how can we blind ourselves to the fact that we are destroying the very systems we depend on. IE Australian deforestation, overfishing , taking the most fertile land in Midwestern states to put up mini malls and increase urban sprawl.
    Diamonds observations are poignant and important

  • Wano Nymous

    They cut down all the trees and built giant rafts that huge sections of the tribe would sail to other far away lands and some people stayed behind.

  • https://www.facebook.com/JudiWoolworthDonahue Judith Woolworth Donahue

    Since Easter Isl magnified is a rebus ideogram of the real ring of fire it sits within + it is also connected to other rebus ideogram sites culminating in a message across eart that instructs how to stop earths warming end…..id say the last tree being cut down was symbolic of what will happen, part of the rebus….do not believe me? STAND BACK + SEE….magnify the entire island..the ring of fire volcano ring near 1000, the ring of volcano statue near 1000, both with dormant + erupting statues *red hats eruption*…add faces to the real volcanoes + theyd be twins…Giza is another one…giant messages of stone written across earth…pyramid was mirrored, restore the mirroring + SEE volcanic mirror…volcanic acid rain aerosols reflect away sun + cool earth///// so///what you SEE is the answer

  • Bob patterson

    Interesting article on one of my
    favorite places. The ecological destruction of Easter Island was also well
    written about in Jo Anne Van Tilburg’s book “Easter Island” (1994).
    Numerous scientists have postulated the reason for the islands conditions. It is
    a place that is windswept, yet its beauty is something to behold. Rapa Nui, as it is today
    lies in contrast to a disturbing past. Early explorers and priests decimated a
    unique culture as well as its icons/ writing tablets. I did find some cool pictures of Easter Island on imagetaxi (.com)

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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