1491 and the Death of Easter Island

Josh Clark

I had my face mashed into a fat, squishy bunch of tissue by the collective hand of all the listeners who called me out for saying a number of episodes back that humanity had never been so laid to waste as it was under the scourge of the Black Death. Uh huh, it has so, went the general line of the emails I received after the Black Death episode came out. When the Europeans came to the Americas, almost a hundred million people were wiped out, maybe more. Then at the end they'd add this one terse line. They thought they were being helpful. I would read it in slow motion: You should check out a book called 1491. It talks all about it.

For a significant portion of the aughts, I breathed 1491. I loved that book; it was life changing in a very literal sense. It changed the way I saw the study of history and anthropology. It introduced me to the idea that how we interpret events in history can hold social and political ramifications today. I proselytized that book and its author, Charles C. Mann, not in any small measure in older episodes on the very same podcast that I had prompted these listeners who obviously hadn't made it very far through the back catalog to write in and correct me. I should check out 1491. Pffft. I am 1491.

And yet, they were right. I had forgotten. After spending a short time examining how I forgot everything I learned from the book, I concluded that I have used up the finite neural connections available in my brain and have been writing over old ones. Unfortunately, those developed from reading 1491 had been reused. I realized this was a bit of a gift, however, in that I get to read the book again. And so it is here that I find myself, breathing 1491 again and mentioning it on the podcast for future listeners to not hear.

I include that self-important introduction to get here: I came across a book review in the Wall Street Journal about two archaeologists working to understand what led to the famous collapse of the civilization on Easter Island (Rapa Nui) that was at least sufficiently cohesive enough to raise its famous oversized statues. During reading, I became aware of how much I understood about the repercussion of what interpretation proves correct. I found to my happy surprise that the book review was written by Charles Mann. What's more! He has a new book, 1493, coming out tomorrow.

There are two main contenders for what brought about the fall of Easter Island: First, the Rapa Nui inhabitants brought about their own destruction by carelessly felling 16 million palm trees to erect more and more massive statues, an interpretation that lends itself as an easy allegory for the environmental destructiveness of the consumer societies that comprise much of the globe today. That view is held by another anthropological hero of mine, Jared Diamond (yes, I know he's not an anthropologist) in his book Collapse.

The other view is held by the authors of the book under review in the WSJ, called the Statues that Walked. Based on their own research, the Rapa Nui people arrived far later than anyone had previously imagined, which, in turn, gave them far less time to utterly rape the lush, abundant land that was given to them by the oft-betrayed god of ecology. In the authors' estimate, any lushness is attributable to the inhabitants who figured out ways to coax life from the inhospitable land. What's more, it was likely the Polynesian rat that was responsible for the collapse of Easter Island's ecosystem. These rats survive on palm shoots and multiply with astounding rapidity, a combination of factors which could account for the near-complete loss of vegetation on the island in conjunction with the humans' felling of trees (which were not, by the way, used to move the statues, the authors contend). Rapa Nui society itself, already in trouble from habitat destruction thanks to rats, was further leveled by the arrival of Peruvian slave traders.

The differences in these interpretations are clear. Rapa Nui was either killed by mindless ecological assassins or the inhabitants themselves were the recipients of the short of end the stick, at the hands of rats, Peruvians and historians who consider them careless with their ecosystem. But even in the second, seemingly more desirable interpretation there are pitfalls. Seeing the Rapa Nui settlers as the passive recipients to a great spanking by fate and other societies threatens to make their society weak, middling and unimportant. While we are tempted to examine other societies through our current politics and culture. To the detriment of our ability to fully understand them, we often force other societies to fit one side of an argument or dismiss them as primitive. In doing so, we fail not these old societies whose truth will still remain to be found by cleverer thinkers, but ourselves who pass up the opportunity to at least know for knowing sake. It's good to be breathing 1491 again.