The content below was written by Jared Diamond and appeared in the August 1, 1995 edition of Discover Magazine (http://discovermagazine.com/1995/aug/eastersend543). The content of the article article been widely copy-and-pasted by others and often serves as the basis for what people think they know about the island. Here, I try to provide comments to help update the essay with knowledge that we have gained over the past 25 years.
In just a few centuries [the entire prehistoric occupation was just 500 years: ca. 1200AD to 1722AD. Radiocarbon dates (Mann et al 2008) show the loss of the palm forest took this entire span of time.], the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest [note that choice of the word “wiping” belies the fact that the palm forest was turned into gardens over the entire prehistoric span of occupation and possibly into European times], drove their plants [large palm trees (Jubea Chilensis) with little economic value] and animals [by animals, Diamond means “seabirds.” Excavations by Steadman et al (1994) show that there were once seabirds on the island that are now extinct.] to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos [according to whom? and when? Archaeologically, we only see changes in settlement patterns after the point of European contact] and cannibalism [there is no empirical evidence of cannibalism on Rapa Nui]. Are we about to follow their lead?
Among the most riveting mysteries of human history are those posed by vanished civilizations [the archaeological record lack humans by definition so in this sense, everything that happened in the past has “vanished.” By invoking this phrase Diamond attempts to make the past more mysterious than it is. Additionally, the use of “civilization” is a loaded term that signifies features of the past familiar to Europeans and the assumptions that come with it]. Everyone who has seen the abandoned buildings of the Khmer, the Maya, or the Anasazi is immediately moved to ask the same question: Why did the societies that erected those structures disappear? [Because of time? If the people were still living in those deposits, they wouldn’t be archaeological by definition. The use of ‘disappear’ here simply asserts the change had to be dramatic and quick: a common sense view of historical change that is usually incorrect.]
Their vanishing touches us as the disappearance of other animals, even the dinosaurs, never can. No matter how exotic those lost civilizations seem, their framers were humans like us [Note that the use of “civilization” implies people who have the same sensibilities as Europeans. This an orthogenesis-based assertion.] Who is to say we won’t succumb to the same fate? [Dramatic yes, but what fate is that? That life will change over time? Of course, it will.] Perhaps someday New York’s skyscrapers will stand derelict and overgrown with vegetation, like the temples at Angkor Wat and Tikal. [Now the image is planted in your head: the future could be all ruins. Who wants that?]
Among all such vanished civilizations, that of the former Polynesian society on Easter Island remains unsurpassed in mystery [Due to the lack of detailed archaeological research of chronology, settlement patterns, and subsistence] and isolation. The mystery stems especially from the island’s gigantic stone statues and its impoverished landscape, but it is enhanced by our associations with the specific people involved: Polynesians represent for us the ultimate in exotic romance, the background for many a child’s, and an adult’s, vision of paradise [Paradise? Easter island is located ca. 27 degrees south of the equator, a region that is “sub-tropical.” The native soils on the island are remarkably poor in terms of productivity]. My own interest in Easter was kindled over 30 years ago when I read Thor Heyerdahl’s fabulous accounts of his Kon-Tiki voyage [Heyerdahl argued that the people who made the famous statues of Easter Island were invaders from South America: red-haired, blue-eyed Aryans (Holton 2004)].
But my interest has been revived recently by a much more exciting account, one not of heroic voyages but of painstaking research and analysis. My friend [Why does this make a difference?] David Steadman, a paleontologist, has been working with a number of other researchers [David Cassanova, Patricia Vargas Ferrando, and Claudio Christino] who are carrying out the first systematic excavations [conducted at Anakaena beach, one of the only places on Easter Island that has good preservation of faunal remains, the specific focus on this excavation] on Easter intended to identify the animals and plants that once lived there. Their work is contributing to a new interpretation of the island’s history [the first part of this sentence is true, or was in 1995] that makes it a tale not only of wonder but of warning as well [the second part of this sentence is fabricated hyperbole].
Easter Island, with an area of only 64 square miles, is the world’s most isolated scrap of habitable land. It lies in the Pacific Ocean more than 2,000 miles west of the nearest continent (South America), 1,400 miles from even the nearest habitable island (Pitcairn). Its subtropical location and latitude–at 27 degrees south, it is approximately as far below the equator as Houston is north of it–help give it a rather mild climate [“mild” climate is not the same as what is found in central Polynesia, near the equator. The southerly location of Rapa Nui makes it quite distinctive], while its volcanic origins make its soil fertile [in general young volcanic soils are productive. But the volcanic soils on Rapa Nui range from 200,000 to 1,000,000 years in age. With sufficient rainfall, soil nutrients have been leached out of the top-soil. Thus, the pre-human soils of the island were never productive and always had to be amended in order to reliably grow crops (Ladefoged et al 2010)]. In theory, this combination of blessings should have made Easter a miniature paradise [Demonstrably wrong: it was always a challenging place to live for humans. The invocation of “paradise” sets up the MacGuffin that Diamond is trying to sell the reader], remote from problems that beset the rest of the world [while remote, why would Rapa Nui be any different than anywhere else?].
The island derives its name from its discovery by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, on Easter (April 5) in 1722. Roggeveen’s first impression was not of a paradise but of a wasteland: We originally, from a further distance, have considered the said Easter Island as sandy; the reason for that is this, that we counted as sand the withered grass, hay, or other scorched and burnt vegetation, because its wasted appearance could give no other impression than of a singular poverty and barrenness. [Diamond misleads the reader here and cherry picks this statement out of its historical context. This statement is based on Roggeveen’s sighting of the land before landing on it. At that point, all he could see was the brown grass that would have been present at the end of the island’s summer months. After he landed on the island, meet the people and received ample food and gifts, he wrote: “.. we found it not only sandy but on the contrary exceedingly fruitful, producing bananas, potatoes, sugar-cane of remarkable thickness, and many other kinds of the fruits of the earth; although destitute of large trees and domestic animals, except poultry. This pace, as far as its rich soil and good climate are concerned, is such that it might be made into an earthly Paradise”.]
The island Roggeveen saw was a grassland without a single tree or bush over ten feet high [Based on early European visitors, this is true. Yet notice how Roggeveen first despaired the lack of trees then calls the island an “earthly Paradise” based on the ability of people to produce food. The lack of trees in no way implies that a catastrophe took place as Diamond ends up asserting.] Modern [as opposed to what other sort?] botanists have identified only 47 species of higher plants native to Easter, most of them grasses, sedges, and ferns. The list includes just two species of small trees and two of woody shrubs. With such flora, the islanders Roggeveen encountered had no source of real firewood to warm themselves during Easter’s cool, wet, windy winters [And yet, in Roggeveen’s own observations, such lack of “firewood” made no difference. People around the world thrive in areas with little in the way of firewood. Diamond’s appealing to euro-centric sensibilities about what we “should” expect to find in a “civilization.”] Their native animals included nothing larger than insects, not even a single species of native bat, land bird, land snail, or lizard. For domestic animals, they had only chickens. [Diamond points this fact out as though one should be surprised. Yet, Polynesians only carried the chicken, dog, pig and rat with them as they spread across the Pacific. Not all four animal species arrived on all islands. While people brought the rat (rattus exulans, the Pacific rat) to nearly every island most received some combination of the pig, dog, and chicken (Anderson 2001). On Rapa Nui, people brought the chicken and the rat. Rats were known to have been a source of food by Polynesians (as observed by Captain Cook in 1774). Importantly, the two animal sources of protein represent a constraint of the island, not the outcome of Diamond’s collapse as he will try to argue.]
To be continued – coming soon: Part II
Anderson, A. (2001). No meat on that beautiful shore: the prehistoric abandonment of subtropical Polynesian islands. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 11(1-2), 14-23.
Holton, G. E. L. (2004). Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki Theory and the Denial of the Indigenous Past. Anthropological Forum, 14(2), 163-181. doi:10.1080/0066467042000238976
Jarman, C. L., Larsen, T., Hunt, T. L., Lipo, C. P., Solsvik, R., Wallsgrove, N., . . . Popp, B. N. (2017). Diet of the prehistoric population of Rapa Nui (Easter Island, Chile) shows environmental adaptation and resilience. Journal of Physical Anthropology, 164(2), 343-361.
Mann, D., Edwards, J., Chase, J., Beck, W., Reanier, R., Mass, M., Loret, J. (2008). Drought, vegetation change, and human history on Rapa Nui (Isla de Pascua, Easter Island). Quaternary Research, 69(1), 16-28. doi:10.1016/j.yqres.2007.10.009
Morrison, A. (2012). An archaeological analysis of Rapa Nui settlement structure: A multi-scalar approach. (Ph.D.), University of Hawai’i, Manoa.
Steadman, D., Vargas, P. C. and Cristino, C. (1994). Stratigraphy, chronology, and cultural context of an early faunal assemblage from Easter Island. Asian Perspectives, 33(1), 79-96.