AN ANNOTATED VERSION OF JARED DIAMOND’S 1995 ARTICLE “EASTER’S END” – PART II

European visitors throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries estimated Easter’s human population at about 2,000, a modest number considering the island’s fertility [Why is this ‘modest’? It is only that way if you assume there must have been many more people. Given the size of the island, the fraction that is useful for cultivation plus what we now know about settlement patterns (McCoy 1974; Morrison 2011) and subsistence (Jarman et al 2017).] As Captain James Cook recognized during his brief visit in 1774, the islanders were Polynesians (a Tahitian man accompanying Cook was able to converse with them). Yet despite the Polynesians’ well-deserved fame as a great seafaring people, the Easter Islanders who came out to Roggeveen’s and Cook’s ships did so by swimming or paddling canoes that Roggeveen described as bad and frail. Their craft, he wrote, were put together with manifold small planks and light inner timbers, which they cleverly stitched together with very fine twisted threads. . . . But as they lack the knowledge and particularly the materials for caulking and making tight the great number of seams of the canoes, these are accordingly very leaky, for which reason they are compelled to spend half the time in bailing. The canoes, only ten feet long, held at most two people, and only three or four canoes were observed on the entire island.

With such flimsy craft, Polynesians could never have colonized Easter from even the nearest island [True: the sailing canoes used for voyaging were massive and likely double-hulled.] nor could they have traveled far offshore to fish.[Largely true, though the small leaky canoes were taken routinely several miles offshore as observed by Europeans]. The islanders Roggeveen met were totally isolated, unaware that other people existed. Investigators in all the years since his visit have discovered no trace of the islanders’ having any outside contacts: not a single Easter Island rock or product has turned up elsewhere, nor has anything been found on the island that could have been brought by anyone other than the original settlers or the Europeans. Yet the people living on Easter claimed memories of visiting the uninhabited Sala y Gomez reef 260 miles away, far beyond the range of the leaky canoes seen by Roggeveen [It is not clear what this “memory” reflects – older traditions? There is no direct evidence of prehistoric people on this sea rock]. How did the islanders’ ancestors reach that reef from Easter, or reach Easter from anywhere else?

Easter Island’s most famous feature is its huge stone statues, more than 200 of which once stood on massive stone platforms lining the coast. At least 700 more, in all stages of completion, were abandoned in quarries or on ancient roads between the quarries and the coast, as if the carvers and moving crews had thrown down their tools and walked off the job [such as would have likely happened when Europeans arrived in AD 1722]. Most of the erected statues were carved in a single quarry and then somehow transported as far as six miles–despite heights as great as 33 feet and weights up to 82 tons. The abandoned statues, meanwhile, were as much as 65 feet tall and weighed up to 270 tons. The stone platforms were equally gigantic: up to 500 feet long and 10 feet high, with facing slabs weighing up to 10 tons.

Roggeveen himself quickly recognized the problem the statues posed: The stone images at first caused us to be struck with astonishment, he wrote, because we could not comprehend how it was possible that these people, who are devoid of heavy thick timber for making any machines, as well as strong ropes, nevertheless had been able to erect such images. [Roggeveen did not wonder this at all. He quickly concluded that the statues were fashioned from clay or sediment.] Roggeveen might have added that the islanders had no wheels, no draft animals, and no source of power except their own muscles. How did they transport the giant statues for miles, even before erecting them? To deepen the mystery, the statues were still standing in 1770, but by 1864 all of them had been pulled down, by the islanders themselves [Diamond makes an important point: the statues were standing in 1770 when the Spanish arrived. Their “falling” took place during historic times and thus their toppled nature cannot be evidence for “collapse.”] Why then did they carve them in the first place? And why did they stop? [Interestingly, Diamond makes no specific claim about why the statues were made. This is an important point: since they invested so much in the statue construction, what advantage did they provide those who made them versus those that did not. ]

The statues imply a society very different from the one Roggeveen saw in 1722. Their sheer number and size suggest a population much larger than 2,000 people. What became of everyone? Furthermore, that society must have been highly organized [No evidence to suggest “high organization” whatsoever. No island wide chiefdom, no hierarchy. The evidence consists of multiple small groups scatter around the island with no top-down structure]. Easter’s resources were scattered across the island: the best stone for the statues was quarried at Rano Raraku near Easter’s northeast end; red stone, used for large crowns adorning some of the statues, was quarried at Puna Pau, inland in the southwest; stone carving tools came mostly from Aroi in the northwest [not true: tools came from basalt basalt sources around the island]. Meanwhile, the best farmland lay in the south and east [cultivation maps to the location of mulch gardening which is largely islandwide], and the best fishing grounds on the north and west coasts [no: the other coasts are excellent fishing]. Extracting and redistributing all those goods required complex political organization [This is a fact-free assertion. There is no evidence of complex political organization]. What happened to that organization, and how could it ever have arisen in such a barren landscape? [What is “barren”? The productive mulch gardens?  Why must have there been such an organization? There is nothing necessary about this nor is there any evidence to support such a claim. The organization was not present in the first place. ]

Easter Island’s mysteries have spawned volumes of speculation for more than two and a half centuries. Many Europeans were incredulous that Polynesians–commonly characterized as mere savages –could have created the statues or the beautifully constructed stone platforms. In the 1950s, Heyerdahl argued that Polynesia must have been settled by advanced societies of American Indians, who in turn must have received civilization across the Atlantic from more advanced societies of the Old World. Heyerdahl’s raft voyages aimed to prove the feasibility of such prehistoric transoceanic contacts. In the 1960s the Swiss writer Erich von Däniken, an ardent believer in Earth visits by extraterrestrial astronauts, went further, claiming that Easter’s statues were the work of intelligent beings who owned ultramodern tools, became stranded on Easter, and were finally rescued. [Note that Diamond treats the reasons for which statues were made as a mystery as well. Apparently, prehistoric people acted irrationallly in the view of Diamond since it leads to their ultimately demise in the form of “collapse.”]

Heyerdahl and Von Däniken both brushed aside overwhelming evidence [like Diamond does in his own case of studying Easter Island] that the Easter Islanders were typical Polynesians derived from Asia rather than from the Americas and that their culture (including their statues) grew out of Polynesian culture. Their language was Polynesian, as Cook had already concluded. Specifically, they spoke an eastern Polynesian dialect related to Hawaiian and Marquesan, a dialect isolated since about A.D. 400, as estimated from slight differences in vocabulary. Their fishhooks and stone adzes resembled early Marquesan models. Last year DNA extracted from 12 Easter Island skeletons was also shown to be Polynesian. The islanders grew bananas, taro, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, and paper mulberry–typical Polynesian crops, mostly of Southeast Asian origin. Their sole domestic animal, the chicken, was also typically Polynesian and ultimately Asian, as were the rats that arrived as stowaways [or were brought intentionally for food production, more likely] in the canoes of the first [and, importantly, only] settlers.

What happened to those settlers? The fanciful theories of the past must give way to evidence gathered by hardworking practitioners in three fields: archeology, pollen analysis, and paleontology [and fanciful thinking on the part of Diamond].

Modern archeological excavations on Easter have continued since Heyerdahl’s 1955 expedition. The earliest radiocarbon dates associated with human activities are around A.D. 400 to 700, in reasonable agreement with the approximate settlement date of 400 estimated by linguists [Linguists base their date on what archaeologists have told them, the archaeologists support their choice of the early date based on linguists.  The actual evidence of colonization shows that people arrived by the early part of the 13th century. There is no evidence to support the arrival of people earlier than this date, throughout East Polynesia.]. The period of statue construction peaked around 1200 [i.e., statues began upon arrival of people] to 1500 [there is no evidence of this date. Statues were standing at the time of contact, thus were likely being raised up through the earliest arrival of Europeans], with few if any statues erected thereafter [this is made up. Statues stop being made after European arrival]. Densities of archeological sites [Note: the number of “sites” on Rapa Nui does not indicate population size but of the low-density but extensive distribution of the archaeological record (Morrison 2012)]  suggest a large population [no, untrue]; an estimate of 7,000 people is widely quoted by archeologists [who? Based on what?], but other estimates range up to 20,000, which does not seem implausible for an island of Easter’s area and fertility [These numbers are made up: they come from assumptions about how many people must have been present to account for the large number of statues. There is no evidence whatsoever that the island every held that number of people. Indeed, the island today could not support such populations even with jet cargo providing food on a daily basis.]

Archeologists have also enlisted surviving islanders in experiments aimed at figuring out how the statues might have been carved and erected. Twenty people, using only stone chisels, could have carved even the largest completed statue within a year. Given enough timber [not necessary or available] and fiber for making ropes, teams of at most a few hundred [more likely: a few dozen] people could have loaded the statues onto wooden sleds [no evidence for this and there are resources available for these], dragged them over lubricated wooden tracks or rollers, and used logs as levers to maneuver them into a standing position [no evidence of this and is this not required]. Rope could have been made from the fiber of a small native tree, related to the linden, called the hauhau. However, that tree is now extremely scarce on Easter, and hauling one statue would have required hundreds of yards of rope [The shrub from which rope comes, Triumfetta grows in well in disturbed habitat. As palm trees were slash and burned for cultivation the habitat for triumfetta would likely have expanded]. Did Easter’s now barren landscape once support the necessary trees?

That question can be answered by the technique of pollen analysis, which involves boring out a column of sediment from a swamp or pond, with the most recent deposits at the top and relatively more ancient deposits at the bottom. The absolute age of each layer can be dated by radiocarbon methods. Then begins the hard work: examining tens of thousands of pollen grains under a microscope, counting them, and identifying the plant species that produced each one by comparing the grains with modern pollen from known plant species [yes, this is what all palynologists do]. For Easter Island, the bleary-eyed [why so bleary?] scientists who performed that task were John Flenley, now at Massey University in New Zealand [and creationist reverend https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265204423_Creation_Versus_Creationism ], and Sarah King of the University of Hull in England.

Flenley and King’s heroic [?] efforts were rewarded by the striking new picture that emerged of Easter’s prehistoric landscape. For at least 30,000 years before human arrival and during the early years of Polynesian settlement, Easter was not a wasteland at all [nor is it today or in prehistory: it was a landscape transformed into a productive habitat for the cultivation of sweet potato through slash and burn followed by lithic mulch gardening]. Instead, a subtropical forest of trees and woody bushes towered over a ground layer of shrubs, herbs, ferns, and grasses. In the forest grew tree daisies, the rope- yielding hauhau tree [rope was made out of “hau” Triumfetta semitriloba], and the toromiro tree, which furnishes a dense, mesquite-like firewood. The most common tree in the forest was a species of palm [Jubea chilensis] now absent on Easter but formerly so abundant that the bottom strata of the sediment column were packed with its pollen. The Easter Island palm was closely related to the still-surviving Chilean wine palm, which grows up to 82 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. The tall, unbranched trunks of the Easter Island palm would have been ideal for transporting and erecting statues [Wrong!: Palm trees have a hard bark surrounding a wet fibrous core. As pointed out by Gurley and Liller (1997) “a roller made from the trunk of J. chilensis would be much like a hardwood barrel with a solid softwood interior.” Palms are not hardwoods and would make lousy rollers. There is also plenty of other evidence that palms were not used this way including the shape of the moai roads that were used for transportation.] The palm would also have been a valuable food source [possibly though we have no evidence of this whatsoever], since its Chilean relative yields edible nuts [rat predation would have meant that very few nuts were available for humans] as well as sap from which Chileans make sugar, syrup, honey, and wine. [while Chileans may do this, we don’t have any documentation that this is the case for Rapa Nui. No artifacts have been identified linking palms and food production. ]

What did the first settlers of Easter Island eat when they were not glutting themselves on the local equivalent of maple syrup? [There is no evidence to support this in the early or late record nor any accounts in any traditions recorded by Europeans. Thus, this is entirely a fake assertion.] Recent excavations by David Steadman, of the New York State Museum at Albany, have yielded a picture of Easter’s original animal world as surprising as Flenley and King’s picture of its plant world. Steadman’s expectations for Easter were conditioned by his experiences elsewhere in Polynesia, where fish are overwhelmingly the main food at archeological sites, typically accounting for more than 90 percent of the bones in ancient Polynesian garbage heaps. Easter, though, is too cool for the coral reefs beloved by fish, and its cliff-girded coastline permits shallow-water fishing in only a few places. Less than a quarter of the bones in its early garbage heaps (from the period 900 to 1300) belonged to fish [fishbones are under-represented due to Steadman’s screens; the vastly more reliable bone chemistry data show that people ate 50% fish for their diet (Jarman et al 2017)] instead, nearly one-third of all bones came from porpoises [False: when fine screens are used, the # of rat bones is equivalent to dolphin except in the unit where Steadman only used a coarse screen (¼”) where the # of rat bones is vastly under-represented, a fact known by all archaeologist about the effect screen choice has on numbers of bones recovered). ]

Nowhere else in Polynesia do porpoises account for even 1 percent of discarded food bones [Note: (1) Anakena bay is a good location to trap dolphins given its shape and shallow waters. Trapping dolphins close to shore is well-documented and does not require “sea-going” canoes.  (2) Dolphins remains are present throughout the entire sequence – thus people at them as they were available. (3) One would expect that Anakena, the one location at which dolphin might be easily caught to have deposits with dolphin. Other places on the island, however, are not suitable. Thus the extrapolation of Steadman’s excavations to the entire island is false]. But most other Polynesian islands offered animal food in the form of birds and mammals, such as New Zealand’s now extinct giant moas and Hawaii’s now extinct flightless geese. Most other islanders also had domestic pigs and dogs. On Easter, porpoises would have been the largest animal available–other than humans. The porpoise species identified at Easter, the common dolphin, weighs up to 165 pounds. It generally lives out at sea, so it could not have been hunted by line fishing or spearfishing from shore. Instead, it must have been harpooned far offshore, in big seaworthy canoes built from the extinct palm tree [Polynesians did not make canoes from palm trees. These are not appropriate for canoe construction. We have no evidence this was the case at all. And the use of canoes was not need to get dolphin at Anakena bay where they were historically trapped close to shore.]

In addition to porpoise meat [this can only be something used by a few people in an ad hoc fashion given the nature of Anakena], Steadman found, the early Polynesian settlers were feasting on seabirds. For those birds, Easter’s remoteness and lack of predators made it an ideal haven as a breeding site, at least until humans arrived. Among the prodigious numbers of seabirds that bred on Easter were albatross, boobies, frigate birds, fulmars, petrels, prions, shearwaters, storm petrels, terns, and tropic birds. With at least 25 nesting species, Easter was the richest seabird breeding site in Polynesia and probably in the whole Pacific [Unsupported hyperbole.]

Land birds as well went into early Easter Island cooking pots [Rapa Nui never had pottery. Food was cooked in umu, earth ovens]. Steadman identified bones of at least six species, including barn owls, herons, parrots, and rail. Bird stew would have been seasoned with meat from large numbers of rats, which the Polynesian colonists inadvertently [We don’t know if the rats were brought with them purposefully or not. It is likely they were given that they arrive with humans on almost all islands in Polynesia]; Easter Island is the sole known Polynesian island where rat bones outnumber fish bones at archeological sites. (In case you’re squeamish and consider rats inedible, I still recall recipes for creamed laboratory rat that my British biologist friends used to supplement their diet during their years of wartime food rationing.) [Note that the number of rat bones has important implications for the survival of palm trees that are the favored food of tree rats such as Rattus exulans. Diamond ignores this issue but it has been well documented that rats caused deforestation across the Pacific without human direct intervention. Rapa Nui’s deforestation is almost certainly aided by rat predation on the palm nuts.]

Porpoises, seabirds, land birds, and rats did not complete the list of meat sources formerly available on Easter. A few bones hint at the possibility of breeding seal colonies as well [a minor part of the diet at best. These were sweet potato farmers]. All these delicacies were cooked in ovens fired by wood from the island’s forests [and all the other sources of burning – grasses, bushes, etc.– as was done throughout prehistory as well as post contact. Fuel for fire was never lacking on Rapa Nui since people cooked food long after the vanishing of the palm forest. This is a point that Diamond seems to neglect to mention.]

Such evidence lets us imagine the island onto which Easter’s first Polynesian colonists stepped ashore some 1,600 [Wrong. 800 years ago] years ago, after a long canoe voyage from eastern Polynesia. They found themselves in a pristine paradise [As mentioned before, Rapa Nui was never a “paradise” given its size, lack of productive soil, lack of animal diversity, lack of nearshore reefs and sub-tropical climate]. What then happened to it? [Answer: Rapa Nui was transformed into a place that supported humans sustainably up through the recent past] The pollen grains and the bones yield a grim [says, who?]  answer.

Coming soon: Part III

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