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

Pollen records show that destruction of Easter’s forests was well under way by the year 800 [there is no evidence were here on the island at this time. The only evidence for humans on Raa Nui comes at 1200AD], just a few centuries after the start of human settlement [also wrong]. Then charcoal from wood fires came to fill the sediment cores, while pollen of palms and other trees and woody shrubs decreased or disappeared, and pollen of the grasses that replaced the forest became more abundant. Not long after 1400 the palm finally became extinct [not according to radiocarbon evidence that shows that palm burning continued until 1700s (Mann et al 2008)], not only as a result of being chopped down but also because the now ubiquitous rats prevented its regeneration: of the dozens of preserved palm nuts discovered in caves on Easter, all had been chewed by rats and could no longer germinate [Yes: rats were likely a major factor in the loss of the trees as we have argued]. While the hauhau tree did not become extinct in Polynesian times, its numbers declined drastically until there weren’t enough left to make ropes from [Absolutely no evidence of this? Triumfetta grows in disturbed habit and likely increased over time].  By the time Heyerdahl visited Easter, only a single, nearly dead toromiro tree remained on the island, and even that lone survivor has now disappeared. (Fortunately, the toromiro still grows in botanical gardens elsewhere.) [The loss of the toromiro tree is likely due to the massive sheep ranch that occupied the island from the 1880s through 1940s — this sheep devastated landscape is what Heyerdahl observed; not the result of prehistory. An overlooked and inconvenient fact for Diamond.]

The fifteenth century marked the end not only for Easter’s palm but for the forest itself [and it had no impact on humans whatsoever as the loss of trees meant more room for growing food.]. Its doom [What doom? Where is the evidence?] had been approaching as people cleared land to plant gardens [yes, they grew more food to support themselves]; as they felled trees to build canoes [no: the palm trees were not used for canoes], to transport and erect statues [no: palm trees are bad rollers and there is no evidence to suggest they were used in this fashion], and to burn [yes: as slash-and-burn cultivators this woudl be the best way to release nutrients locked up in the trees] ; as rats devoured seeds [yes, the rats would eat the palm nuts before humans could use them as food sources]; and probably as the native birds died out that had pollinated the trees’ flowers and dispersed their fruit [yet this had not effect on humans or the rest of the environment]. The overall picture is among the most extreme examples of forest destruction anywhere in the world [uh, what about England? Or Iceland? Or the many areas around the world that were deforested at much bigger scales] the whole forest gone, and most of its tree species extinct.

The destruction of the island’s animals was as extreme as that of the forest: without exception, every species of native land bird became extinct [True: but these were not a major source of food for people even early on according to the faunal remains]. Even shellfish were overexploited, until people had to settle for small sea snails instead of larger cowries [Again: not these were never a major source of food as these people were slash-and-burn culitvators, growing sweet potato and taro]. Porpoise bones disappeared abruptly [not based on data] from garbage heaps around 1500 [in Steadman’s original 1994 data, there are dolphin bones in all of the levels up to the surface]; no one could harpoon porpoises anymore [says who? There are dolphin bones throughout the Steadman sequence], since the trees used for constructing the big seagoing canoes no longer existed [Wrong. The trees used for sea-going canoes never existed on Rapa Nui. The forest that was cleared for farming was a palm forest. Palms are not useful for canoes. The lack of sea-going canoes is almost certainly due to the fact that the original canoes rotted away or left for other locations. But note that the loss of the canoes had no impact on the population’s ability to subsist: they were slash-and-burn cultivators.] The colonies of more than half of the seabird species breeding on Easter or on its offshore islets were wiped out. [Yet, this had no impact on the ability of people to feed themselves. The loss of seabirds is likely due to the loss of nesting habitats as these slash-and-burn cultivators cleared for the forest for food. In this way, the loss of the forest increased the ability of people to support themselves.]

In place of these meat supplies, the Easter Islanders intensified their production of chickens , which had been only an occasional food item [There is no specific evidence of this fact: chickens were always present on the island and provides a fraction of the diet. There is no evidence to support Diamond’s assertion about the early “occasional” chicken]. They also turned to the largest remaining meat source available: humans, whose bones became common in late Easter Island garbage heaps [This claim is simply made up: human remains are not found in “garbage heaps.” Human remains are found as part of cremations and burials. There is no evidence of cannibalism in all known skeletal examples.] Oral traditions of the islanders are rife with cannibalism; the most inflammatory taunt that could be snarled at an enemy was The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth [the first mentions of cannibalism appears with the arrival of Catholic Missionaries from the Gambier Islands. These missionaries describe all native populations as “cannibals” regardless of evidence of this fact.]  With no wood available  to cook these new goodies [what wood?], the islanders resorted to sugarcane scraps, grass, and sedges to fuel their fires [This was always the case: palm trees are mushy grasses not hardwood so they were never useful for firewood as Diamond appears to claim.].

All these strands of evidence can be wound into a coherent narrative of a society’s decline and fall. The first Polynesian colonists found themselves on an island with fertile soil, abundant food, bountiful building materials, ample lebensraum, and all the prerequisites for comfortable living. They prospered and multiplied.

After a few centuries [Existing evidence points to the fact that people arrived on the island in the 13th century and that statue construction began upon arrival. Monument construction is a trait carried by Polynesians as they spread across East Polynesia and appears elsewhere (e.g., Hawaii, Tahiti, Marquesas, New Zealand, Australs)], they began erecting stone statues on platforms, like the ones their Polynesian forebears had carved. With passing years, the statues and platforms became larger and larger, and the statues began sporting ten-ton red crowns–probably in an escalating spiral of one-upmanship, as rival clans tried to surpass each other with shows of wealth and power. (In the same way, successive Egyptian pharaohs built ever-larger pyramids. Today Hollywood movie moguls near my home in Los Angeles are displaying their wealth and power by building ever more ostentatious mansions. Tycoon Marvin Davis topped previous moguls with plans for a 50,000-square-foot house, so now Aaron Spelling has topped Davis with a 56,000-square-foot house [Diamond’s home is in Bel Air amid a sea of mansions and is currently worth $8.2MM]. All that those buildings lack to make the message explicit are ten-ton red crowns.) On Easter, as in modern America, society was held together by a complex political system to redistribute locally available resources and to integrate the economies of different areas [Yet the difference on Rapa Nui is the fact that the isolation meant that there were direct feedback mechanisms that would provide cues to shape behavior, something ignored by Diamond and a fact that makes the world-spanning economy of the present distinct from prehistory.]

Eventually Easter’s growing population was cutting the forest more rapidly than the forest was regenerating. The people used the land for gardens and the wood for fuel, canoes, and houses–and, of course, for lugging statues. As forest disappeared, the islanders ran out of timber and rope to transport and erect their statues. Life became more uncomfortable– springs and streams dried up [What springs and streams? Water sources continued to be used in the same fashion as they were in prehistory through contact.], and wood was no longer available for fires [It never was in the first place].

People also found it harder to fill their stomachs, as land birds, large sea snails, and many seabirds disappeared [they never relied on these food as Rapa Nui people were sweet-potato cultivators. The loss of these things had little impact of food availability.]. Because timber for building seagoing canoes vanished [they never had the “timber” for canoes], fish catches declined and porpoises disappeared from the table. Crop yields also declined [crop yields were alway poor even from the beginning], since deforestation allowed the soil to be eroded by rain and wind [radiocarbon dates of big erosional features show that this occurred during historic times as a consequence of sheep ranching], dried by the sun, and its nutrients to be leeched from it [this was always the case: the volcanic soils were never productive]. Intensified chicken production  [no evidence for this] and cannibalism [no evidence for this at all] replaced only part of all those lost foods. Preserved statuettes with sunken cheeks and visible ribs suggest that people were starving [these are all historic wooden figures and reflect oral traditions about ghosts].

With the disappearance of food surpluses, Easter Island could no longer feed the chiefs [there were never chiefs], bureaucrats [there were never bureaucrats], and priests who had kept a complex [it was never “complex” in the way Diamond implies] society running. Surviving islanders described to early European visitors how local chaos replaced centralized government and a warrior class took over from the hereditary chiefs [all kinds of changes occurred after contact]. The stone points of spears and daggers, made by the warriors during their heyday in the 1600s and 1700s, still litter the ground of Easter today [There is no evidence these items were used for warfare and indeed would have been ineffective as such. All evidence points to their use as cultivation implements]. By around 1700, the population began to crash toward between one-quarter and one-tenth of its former number [There is no evidence for this. Diamond assumes larger numbers and then assumes they must be smaller since Europeans saw only 3000 people or so. There is no necessary reason this is the case nor evidence to support it]. People took to living in caves for protection against their enemies [Radiocarbon and obsidian hydration dates for cave uses in these way are historic and reflect people hiding from slave raiders and whalers looking to steal people from the island]. Around 1770 [note: that 1770 is the arrival of the Spanish this is not a prehistoric event] rival clans started to topple each other’s statues, breaking the heads off. By 1864 the last statue had been thrown down and desecrated [Yes: after contact the island was plagued by disease and Europeans looking to take slaves. Thus the entire social system fell apart after contact.]

As we try to imagine [cue the dark music and shadowy foreboding] 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? [Obvious answer: because what they were doing increased their carrying capacity and improved their lives] What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree? [Most likely: good riddance. We now have more land to cultivate the sweet potato we rely upon for our food and have fewer places for the introduced rat to live.]

I suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper. After all, there are those hundreds of abandoned statues to consider. The forest the islanders depended on for rollers and rope didn’t simply disappear one day–it vanished slowly, over decades. Perhaps war interrupted the moving teams; perhaps by the time the carvers had finished their work, the last rope snapped. In the meantime, any islander who tried to warn about the dangers of progressive deforestation would have been overridden by vested interests of carvers, bureaucrats, and chiefs, whose jobs depended on continued deforestation. Our Pacific Northwest loggers are only the latest in a long line of loggers to cry, Jobs over trees! The changes in forest cover from year to year would have been hard to detect: yes, this year we cleared those woods over there, but trees are starting to grow back again on this abandoned garden site here. Only older people, recollecting their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales than my eight-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles was like 30 years ago.

Gradually trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. By the time the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, palms had long since ceased to be of economic significance [there is no evidence to support that the palm trees were ever of major economic importance]. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the felling of the last small palm. [True: because they were irrelevant for human survival.]

By now the meaning of easter Island for us should be chillingly obvious [Chilling? That people transformed their landscape to support humans?]. Easter Island is Earth writ small. Today, again, a rising population confronts shrinking resources. We too have no emigration valve, because all human societies are linked by international transport, and we can no more escape into space than the Easter Islanders could flee into the ocean. If we continue to follow our present course, we shall have exhausted the world’s major fisheries, tropical rain forests, fossil fuels, and much of our soil by the time my sons reach my current age.

Every day newspapers report details of famished countries– Afghanistan, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Zaire–where soldiers have appropriated the wealth or where central government is yielding to local gangs of thugs. With the risk of nuclear war receding, the threat of our ending with a bang no longer has a chance of galvanizing us to halt our course. Our risk now is of winding down, slowly, in a whimper. Corrective action is blocked by vested interests, by well-intentioned political and business leaders, and by their electorates, all of whom are perfectly correct in not noticing big changes from year to year. Instead, each year there are just somewhat more people, and somewhat fewer resources, on Earth.

It would be easy to close our eyes or to give up in despair. If mere thousands of Easter Islanders with only stone tools and their own muscle power sufficed to destroy their society, how can billions of people with metal tools and machine power fail to do worse? But there is one crucial difference. The Easter Islanders had no books and no histories of other doomed societies. Unlike the Easter Islanders, we have histories of the past–information that can save us. My main hope for my sons’ generation is that we may now choose to learn from the fates of societies like Easter’s. [Yes: but what we chose to learn needs to be based on evidence. The evidence points to the fact that these people lived sustainably until contact – and we should learn from their success.]

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