Easter Island is a remote, inhabited place in the Pacific Ocean. Its area is 150 square miles and it is 2,000 miles from South America’s west coast. Its peak population was about 7,000 in 1550. In spite of the superficial insignificance of this island, its history is a dismal warning to the entire world. Several changes occurred in the Easter Island environment due to human exploitation and affected the life and social organization of the islanders. Easter Island’s history is not one of the esoteric knowledge and lost civilizations. Rather it shows how human societies depend on their environment. It also shows that irreversible damages to that environment have serious consequences. The islanders started from a grossly inadequate resource base and built a very advanced society for the available technology on the island. However, these developments placed immense demands on the island’s environment. When this environment was no longer able to withstand such pressure, the society fell, after being built up painfully over thousands of years .
The basis of the collapse of Easter Island and the key to comprehending its mysteries was immense environmental degradation that was brought about by deforestation on it. This island had dense vegetation cover as well as extensive woods before the ultimate collapse. As the population grew gradually, trees were cut down to pave way for agriculture and provide fuel for cooking and heating, construction materials for fishing canoes, poles and household goods. The need to transport the large number of enormous and heavy statues to given ceremonial cites was the most serious requirement. Many people guided and slid these statues along a flexible tracking that consisted of tree trunks placed on the ground between the ceremonial cites and the quarry. Increased competition among the clans to erect many statues led to cutting of large quantities of timber resulting in complete deforestation of the island by 1600. Eventually, erection of statues was brought to a halt and many were left stranded at the quarries. The island’s soil was also badly affected as the tree cover was removed. This led to leaching out of necessary soil nutrients as well as soil erosion. This resulted in a decline in crop yields. .
The island’s deforestation had drastic impacts on the day to day life of the population and led to the collapse of the elaborate ceremonial and social life. Shortage of trees forced may people to stop constructing houses from timber and start living in caves. When the wood ultimately ran out, they were forced to use the materials left. They could no longer build canoes and only made reed boats that were not capable of long voyages. They also began making stone shelters on hillsides and flimsy reed huts from the vegetation that was found at the edges of crater lakes. Fishing became more difficult due to the fact that nets were no longer made. Nets were previously made from paper mulberry trees. Food supply became limited and chickens on this island became the only food source. Cases of chicken theft increased, thus prompting chicken owners to construct defensive chicken houses from stones. The population of the island declined drastically due to the diminishing island’s resource base and the society became primitive .
Without canoes and trees, they were trapped in the remote island, unable to move away from the consequences of the environmental collapse. Since they were unable to erect more statues, their social organization and belief systems were adversely affected. The islanders lived in caves and filthy reed huts. They resorted to cannibalism and engaged in perpetual warfare in an effort to supplement the inadequate food supplies that were available. Slavery and destruction of the statues of opposing clans became widespread. Most statues were abandoned and only a few were left. The stone statues that were too enormous to demolish were toppled .
In conclusion, the islanders meticulously constructed one of the most sophisticated societies over centuries against great odds. They sustained a culture in accordance with an intricate set of religious and social customs that made it possible for them to survive and flourish for many years. This was an achievement of the human ingenuity as well as an apparent triumph over a tough environment. However, in the long run, the growing population together with the islander’s cultural ambitions became so great that the available natural resources could no longer sustain them. When the pressure eventually ruined the environment, the society collapsed rapidly leading to a state of barbarism. The islanders became isolated from the other parts of the world and their existence solely depended on inadequate resources of the island. Indeed, they were unable to devise ways and systems that could enable them find the most appropriate balance with the environment of the small island. The fact that many stone statues were left stranded or unfinished at the quarries is a clear indication that the islanders never took into account that a very small number of trees were left on this island.
Ponting, C. (2012). The Lessons of Easter Island. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations , 15-20.