Chapter 5 // Rocking Heads: The Walking Stones of Easter

I. Introduction

II. This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)

III. Found a Job

IV. Making Flippy Floppy

V. Burning Down the House

VI. Life During Wartime

VII. Thank You for Sending Me an Angel

VIII. Take Me to the River

IX. Psycho Killer

X. Crosseyed & Painless

XI. Slippery People

XII. What a Day That Was

XIII. Further Reading


I. Introduction

Giant stone faces line a rocky, windswept coast in the ashen reaches of the Pacific Ocean, peering sullenly, hollowly, upon sweeping fields. Blades of grass tremble like pupa under the chilling gaze of steady winds. Interestingly, these stone faces -- some up to 30 feet tall -- face not towards the ocean’s iron waters, but inwards, as if introspective proctors of history rather than would-be explorers of uncharted lands. These statues are, as you might have guessed, the famous moai, stone monoliths of Easter Island. They dot the barren coastline of the most remote island in the world, more than 2,000 miles off the west coast of Chile.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's favorite environmental essays - map of Chile

When European explorers first sighted Easter Island -- or Rapa Nui, as it’s now called, to reflect its lengthy, pre-Christian history -- the explorers were awe-struck by those same, massive statues. Surely, the Europeans estimated, hauling the island’s 14-ton statues -- more than 800 of them, in all -- would have required populations on the order of 10, 15, or even 20,000 people! But yet, when the Europeans counted the island's inhabitants after happening upon it in the 1700s, they found only 3,000 or so people living on the island. Perhaps even more arresting: not a single tree could be found on the island.

Decades later, after slave raids, smallpox epidemics, and a Frenchman’s privatization of the island for sheep had decimated the population to little more than a handful, sociologists began to study the island and its treeless landscape for clues as to Western Civilization’s own fate.

Many soon concluded that the island must, at some point, have suffered a population collapse, and that the cause was the island’s lack of trees. They theorized that the island’s inhabitants had felled the island’s trees to transport their massive moai faces that had so surprised the first Europeans explorers of the island.

Digging deeper into the archaeological record, it became clear that at some point, the island had been home to trees. Lots of them. Up to 16 million, in fact, on an island no bigger than Washington, D.C.’s 68 square miles. One of the trees, the Jubaea palm, was the Pacific Ocean’s biggest palm tree species, which surely must have borne nutritious coconuts. At some point, as the population plunged from the 30,000 needed to haul the statues to the 3,000 that the Europeans found in the 18th Century, food sources must have plunged, too. Or so the theory went.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's favorite environmental essays - palm tree

Such a food shortage, then, must surely have plunged the Rapanui people into civil war. Thousands of obsidian-tipped spears located across the island seemed to bear such a theory out. Thus, Easter Island was in no uncertain terms, perhaps the prototypical example of ecocide, destruction of the natural, liveable environment by the peoples residing there. It only followed, then, that the descent into civil war and even cannibalism that scientists found evidence of careened like a ribald satellite out of a society that had gone off the ecological rails. Again, so the theory went.

But more recent scholarship applies the brakes to this logical, if overly simplistic, rationale. It appears the theory that the island must have housed up to 20,000 people is not based on archaeological findings, but was a vestige of observations in the yellowed pages of European journals.

Those palm trees with their bounty of coconuts that disappeared? Well, they may not have been so vital to the livelihoods of the Rapanui people after all. And especially not for fashioning into rolling logs to transport the giant moai to the coasts from their quarries in the volcanic highlands. Oh, and that population collapse that beset the island? Findings suggest it may have occurred centuries later than writers originally proposed.  

So if the traditional ecocidal explanation no longer fits the facts, what exactly happened? Why did Rapa Nui’s trees disappear in just a few centuries? Why did the Rapanui people carve, haul, and erect massive stone statues facing away from the ocean? What actually caused the Rapanui people’s numbers to plunge to just a few hundred by the late 19th century?

The answer is a complex one and forms the foundation for this chapter of Age of Ecology, an answer that likely involves clever chiefs, an initially short-sighted people that learned from its mistakes, and rats...lots of rats.


II. This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)

Although early scholarship suggested a single Polynesian pulse of pioneers sailed to Rapa Nui around the 4th century, more recent radiocarbon dating of ancient fires dotted around this Pacific hinterland points to a date much later, perhaps as late as the 12th century.

Of course, the settlers at the time, navigating only by the stars, tides, and ecological clues (!), may not have known that they were marooning themselves on an island that would prove to be one of the most difficult in the world to inhabit. They had set sail from the Blue Curacao-hued Marquesas Islands 2,000 miles to the west, perhaps seeking new opportunities in the economically rigid Marquesan society.

As they sailed, these seabound settlers of Polynesian persuasion would have scanned the horizon, looking for signs of seagulls. Perhaps it went that a child with the eyes of the stars shouted from the prow of the lead catamaran in this seabound fleet that she had sighted the kalapuna, or seagulls, floating on the wind, ascending thermals with effortless purchase.

“Are you certain?” the child’s mother may have asked.

“Yes, I am certain,” this visionary child might have pronounced.

Tiny specks the color and size of coconut hair would have soon entered the vision of the child’s elders. The elders, too, would then have rejoiced. For clustered seagulls mean only one thing: landfall is near.

Photo credit: Lukasz Glewicz on Unsplash

Photo credit: Lukasz Glewicz on Unsplash

The land these Rapanui sailors discovered turned out to be a mass of connected dormant volcanoes. All in all, the island was just three times the size of Manhattan, lacking much in the way of local fish, but still encircled by the fins of tuna and, perhaps even more importantly, porpoises, pliéeing in the open ocean. Just back of the black beach shined the brilliant glow of trees, including the largest palm trees the Rapanui (and the world) had ever seen. As the explorers slid their catamarans onto the beach, likely in disbelief after weeks at sea, rats flung themselves from the hulls of the explorers’ boats into the foaming surf. With the ability to tread water for three days straight, rats are expert swimmers and rode the waves to the beach, where they scurried into the island's dense forests. There, the rats found themselves in a veritable land of milk and honey. Coconut milk and the honeyed yolks of seabirds, that is.


III. Found a Job

This would have been around the time that one of history's most brutal military strategists, Genghis Khan, himself a distant relative of the Rapanui, was sending reconnaissance missions from Mongolia to size up Eastern Europe. But in the quiet South Pacific, the Rapanui were establishing a new life on what was initially a relatively fertile, volcanic island. But with no volcanic activity of its own, little volcanic ash fallout from the Asian mainland and a cool, dry climate, the island of Rapa Nui was ripe for soil depletion.

These islanders had brought with them crops from their old homeland, including the sweet potato-like taro, sweet potato-like yam, and sweet potato-like sweet potato. But with so much of the island covered in dense forests, they had few places to plant them. So they began their first settlement by clearing some of the forest for small gardens. As the population grew, they required more arable farmland. They ventured further into the island’s interior, likely finding that they could plant taro fields in the spring and leave them virtually untended until the fall harvest. This afforded the Rapanui more leisure time than inhabitants of other South Pacific islands.

For example, in contrast to Rapa Nui’s taro-ready highlands, the cassava-pudding homophone island of Tikopia experienced consistent cyclonic weather and jagged geography. These physical limitations forced the island’s inhabitants to devote near-undivided attention to their fields to rehabilitate them after the 2 cyclones per year that struck the island on average. In other words, Tikopians could do little more than subsist on the fruits of their labor. Not so on Rapa Nui, which had food-harvesting conditions favorable enough to carve leisure time from the bedrock of subsistence.

Relatively productive initial farming conditions combined with initially abundant tuna and porpoises off the island’s coast to feed Rapa Nui’s growing population. Those who remained behind during the aquatic porpoise hunts found an abundance of seabirds whose eggs were as easy to pluck from nests as carrots from a garden. It’s no surprise, then, that porpoise and bird bones laced the early trash heaps -- or middens -- from the island, and propelled population growth from the initial landing force of just a few dozen people to at least a few thousand.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's favorite environmental essays - Dolphins


IV. Making Flippy Floppy

The Rapanui initially apportioned the island amongst numerous villages in wedges that radiated from the island’s center. As the population grew, each Rapanui village, with permission from the village head, cleared more forest from their wedges for crops, boats, and fuel. Bickering may have soon cropped up over the best land, as some of the wedges had the abundance of Eden while others were more akin to a WalMart after Black Friday. To stave off the suboptimal leisure activity known as war, the ruling class’s chiefs and priests may have devised a friendly statue-carving competition. As part of it, the island’s growing factions were to construct statues out of the solidified volcanic ash, known as tuff, that lined the cauldron of the island’s biggest dormant volcano, Terevaka, near the island’s north shore.

In the Rapa Nui language, Terevaka means “place to get canoes”, suggesting this now-barren cauldron was once home to thousands of trees that the ancient Rapa Nui used for timber and fuel. According to author and anthropologist Jared Diamond, to this day, Terevaka’s slopes still bear the litter of stone drills, scrapers, chisels, and other canoe-building tools.

As the island’s food sources supported ever-larger families, specialists emerged. With the stamp of approval from the Rapanui chiefs and priests, statue-carving became an essential specialist activity. Masons devoted themselves to carving ever greater statues, whose weight surged past that of elephants and approached the heft of modern day tractor-trailers. Original thinking concluded that the Rapanui people must have transported these giants dozens of miles from the dormant Terevaka to the shore using logs to roll them down island corridors. Similar to how the Egyptians transported the blocks used in the pyramids.

But more recent scholarship discovered something unusual in native Rapa Nui accounts of moai-moving. Numerous Rapa Nui elders described the statue-hauling efforts with the word “neke-neke” -- a term describing not a system of log-rolling, but rather, a back-and-forth walking motion. Still other native Rapanui asserted that the moai “walked” to their posts on the island’s periphery.

These researchers soon demonstrated that it’s possible the Rapa Nui people maneuvered these monoliths to the coast in back-and-forth, rocking and shimmying motions, similar to the way you and all but one of your friends likely moved a refrigerator into your college apartment. The remaining friend of course chain-smoking near the stairs, muttering something about a bad back.

This team of scientists eventually put their theory to the test on a National Geographic special, causing a multi-ton statue to flop back and forth like a hooked marlin. The original theory -- that the island’s inhabitants had logged all the trees for food, fuel, and especially for officiating statues into place -- suddenly lost some of its finality of logic.

Photo credit: Thomas Griggs from Unsplash

Photo credit: Thomas Griggs from Unsplash


V. Burning Down the House

How, then, could an island have witnessed the collapse -- to the tree -- of a dense forest with some 14 million canopied specimens? It’s here that we, in our historical quest, stumble back upon the rats that scuttled ashore with the Rapanui. One of the more successful organisms not named bacteria ever to grace the Earth, rats have scurried through swamps for over 15 million years and sewers for over 150. Along the way, they evolved metabolic processes that help them digest everything from crickets to chicken bones. On Rapa Nui, they consumed countless numbers of bird eggs, crops, and, perhaps most devastatingly, seeds. Lots of seeds.

As the population grew larger, the Rapanui peoples felled more trees to grow food and burn for fuel. On the Marquesas, where the Rapa Nui had likely arrived from, trees such as the breadfruit regenerated in a couple decades (or fewer), and rats had enough natural predators not to seriously impede the groves’ regrowth. But on Rapa Nui, with no natural predators to keep rat populations at bay, the rats roamed the island like scurvy-free sailors fresh off a ship, extracting from the island’s trees tribute in the form of seeds. What was more, the island’s incomparable (and now-extinct) Rapa Nui palm species took up to a century to mature after germinating, much longer than the spry breadfruit of the Marquesas.

All in all, the rats and their voracious appetites played an active role in exterminating 14 out of the 17 species of tree native to the island. Thus began a deadly positive feedback mechanism that continues to haunt the small island to this day.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's favorite environmental essays - Rat illustration

With the thinning forests no longer providing cover, the windy conditions of the island began to carry off the island’s thin topsoil with the ease of ospreys in an aquarium. Not to men In a geological blink of an eye, the already-infertile Rapa Nui became a desolate outpost of rocks and goosebumped grasses. In other words, no country for gold zen.

Along with this positive feedback loop, the populations of porpoises and small, snail-like marine animals called cowries that had fed the Rapa Nui for numerous generations, declined, perhaps from overfishing as a result of diminished agricultural productivity on the islands. (Or perhaps from an independent instance of over-exploitation.)

The resourceful Rapa Nui adapted by replacing porpoise and cowries with the meat of black snails. Even more ingeniously, they solved their dessicated earth dilemma by inventing the concept of rock gardens -- unseen in any other parts of the Pacific -- to enrich their soil to levels just fertile enough to eke out subsistence farming. They supplemented their agricultural diets with those same seabirds they’d encountered when they first settled the island. But the abundance of seabirds the island had experienced when the Rapa Nui landed on the island in the 12th Century had dropped like VCR ownership in the 2000s, again a combination of human and rat predation. With few birds hanging around, the island lost its pollinators, making a canopy comeback even less likely.

Within just a few generations, then, the Rapanui had witnessed first-hand the elimination of seabirds from the island, the elimination of trees from the highlands, and the elimination of marine life from the surrounding ocean. The hardscrabble islanders turned to one of the few abundant food sources left: rats. But the food insecurity and plummeting tree population had done more than force the Rapanui to begin trapping rats for food; it had shaken the very foundations of Rapa Nui culture.


VI. Life During Wartime

In 1680, the historical record seems to indicate that a civil war broke out, as priests lost their credibility, stemming from the ecological fallout they’d presided over. As the dust settled, the reining military leaders introduced the Cult of the Birdman, centered on a new volcano, Rano Kao, towards the southern end of the island, and abandoning the spiritual tie with the northerly Terevaka that had yielded the moai statues centuries earlier. (That the cult fixated on birds perhaps suggests that birds may have been one of the islanders’ last remaining sources for meat.)

With rock carvings on caves depicting women’s genitals, birdmen, and birds, this new cult was punctuated by an annual competition between men of the island’s remaining tribes to anoint a “Birdman of the Year”. The contestants swam a mile across the cold, shark-infested waters separating mainland Rapa Nui from one of its many islets and collected the first egg laid in the season by the Sooty Terns that still populated the area. Like a gladiatorial version of the egg-and-spoon race from elementary school field days, the contestants swam the channel back to Rapa Nui with the egg in their clutch. The victor won the first harvest of many of the island’s resources for the year. The competition and its annual reward perhaps suggest an effort to stave off persistent civil war over who would dominate the island's dwindling food sources.

It’s around this time that the middens of the Rapa Nui begin to see, in addition to rat carcasses, one final artifact: human bones. Charred bones with extreme cut marks suggested cannibalism. If this is true, cannibalism-by-necessity would seem to represent the very bottom of a steep decline for the Rapanui. But they were not so lucky. For the Europeans were soon to arrive.


VII. Thank You for Sending Me an Angel

The first known European contact with the island comes from Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen’s account of landing on Easter Sunday of 1722, when Roggeveen and his crew spent a week on the island. (It was this Easter Sunday landing that leant the island its Western name of Easter Island for so many years.) While there, they somewhat dubiously reported on the remarkable moai statues, rich soil, and adequate if not robust population of 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants on the island, ten to twelve of which Roggeveen’s Dutch compatriots killed during a skirmish.

It's worth noting that, despite Rogeveen’s somewhat optimistic account of the island's inhabitants, scientific studies later discredited much of his observations, showing that the island’s main trees had disappeared around 1650 and that the soil was not particularly fertile by the time he visited in the 1700s. A mind bent towards temperance might perhaps entertain the notion that the shoddiness of the report can be attributed to Dutch Courage. Or gin, as English speakers often refer to it.

The next Europeans to make landfall didn’t arrive until 50 years after Roggeveen, when two Spanish ships sent on behalf of the Viceroy of Peru spent five days moored to the island, ultimately claiming it for King Charles III of Spain. While there, the Spaniards raised three ceremonial wooden crosses on top of three small hills, crosses that had disappeared when British explorer James Cook visited four years later.

James Cook is perhaps best known for exploring an obscure island in the Pacific that he initially named the Sandwich Islands after Britain’s 4th Earl of Sandwich (the same man whose namesake gave rise to the culinary staple) -- the island was later known as Hawaii. But before mapping Hawaii and ultimately losing his life there in a kidnap attempt gone wrong, Cook landed on Easter Island. During Cook’s own brief foray there, one of the botanists in his company reported the island as having poor land, a portion of which was cultivated with banana, sugarcane, and sweet potatoes. The rest of the island was apparently barren, a handful of trees no taller than 10 feet scattered about. Perhaps most surprisingly, Cook’s company also found many of the impressive statues from Roggeveen’s journey toppled, perhaps a ritual of the new Cult of the Birdman that had emerged after the island’s forest ecosystem collapsed. If this is the case, the ritual would suggest adherents sought a break from the past, a break with gods that the island’s limited resources could no longer support.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's favorite environmental essays - James Cook


VIII. Found a “Job”

With no trees for fuel, the inhabitants had, at some point, stopped cremating their dead in favor of mummification and bone burials. Not to mention, many of the island’s inhabitants began to excavate caves dotting the island’s shoreline and eventually moved into them. They appear to have partially sealed the cave’s entrances and moved their sewing and woodworking tools into the cave, suggesting they used the caves like Extended Stay Americas.

Whether the cave excavation came as a response to the constant strife from the island’s resource scarcity, as a haven from the 1680 civil war or the smallpox that Europeans introduced to the island, or as places of hiding during the slave raids that Europeans soon perpetrated on the Rapa Nui, perhaps we’ll never know. We do know, however, that slave raids reached their cruel apex on the island nearly a century after James Cook’s expedition there.

The same year as Americans were dying in the Battle of Gettysburg that prompted Lincoln’s most famous speech, two dozen Peruvian ships abducted more than 1,000 Rapanui and auctioned them off to work in Peru’s guano mines. During the raids, over a third of the island’s remaining population were bound, prodded onto ships, and dumped like manure on the islands off Peru’s coasts to stoop for hours each day collecting nitrogen-rich bird poop for fertilizer. (Peru has since somewhat cleaned up its act, from a labor perspective.)

The Bishop of Tahiti raised alarm bells over the harshness and illegality of the raid. Peru buckled under international pressure and returned fifteen Rapanui captives to their homeland. But the repatriation had the unfortunate effect of bringing a second smallpox epidemic to the island. So many people died, that a bishop was told they would not be able to bury all the bodies.

Not all of the raids were successful, however. In 1863, after capturing a number of Rapanui, including a member of the royal family, Manu Rangi, the Peruvian ship Cora landed at the distant island of Rapa. There, they captured more natives, with their sights set on the Peruvian coastline. But the newly captured Rapa mutinied and sailed the ship to Tahiti. During the freedom voyage, Manu Rangi, whose name meant Heavenly Bird in his native tongue, named his island Rapa Nui. When he was transported back to his homeland a year later -- this time, free of shackles -- he bestowed the island with the name Rapa Nui, a name still in use today.

Though the Rapa Nui converted to Christianity en masse beginning in 1866, tuberculosis followed on the heels of smallpox to kill off a quarter of the island’s remaining population in 1867, including the last remaining member of the Rapanui royal family, Manu Rangi. The same Manu Rangi who had given the island its new name. He was not even fourteen.


IX. Psycho Killer

A year later, a rapacious Frenchman named Jean-Baptiste Dutroux-Bornier, a former artillery officer in the Crimean War, arrived on the island. He was on the lam, having skipped town after receiving a death sentence for his role in Peruvian arms dealing. Although French law didn't officially denounce polygamy until 1993, custom frowned on it. Dutroux-Bornier paid such Puritanical custom no heed and took a Rapa Nui woman named Kareto as his second wife, appointing her Queen of the island to fill the void left by child Prince Manu Rangi’s untimely demise. With the help of his Rapanui bride, Dutrou-Bornier recruited a coterie of Rapa Nui as his own personal junta, extracting military fidelity from them in exchange for allowing them to abandon Christianity. He reined in terror on the island, burning huts and displaying military strength with rifles and a single cannon.

Missionaries evacuated hundreds of Rapa Nui off the island to Mangareva and Tahiti as refugees, reducing the island’s human population to just north of 200 and helping Dutrou-Bornier achieve his goal of eliminating the island’s inhabitants to make way for sheep. But in 1877, just 8 years after landing on the island in a hail of pomp and circumstance and making few friends along the way, Dutrou-Bornier was murdered. His putative predilection for young girls may have hastened his demise.

French visitors examine  moai  while the islanders "steal" items of clothing in 'Voyage de la Perouse autour du Monde'. Europeans did not understand Rapanui customs when trading items and interpreted the Rapanui behaviour as theft. 

French visitors examine moai while the islanders "steal" items of clothing in 'Voyage de la Perouse autour du Monde'. Europeans did not understand Rapanui customs when trading items and interpreted the Rapanui behaviour as theft. 


X. Crosseyed and Painless

With Dutrou-Bornier deposed, the island witnessed a period of recovery for the next decade. Then in 1888, the closest continental nation to Rapa Nui, Chile, annexed the island. Starting in 1955, Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl traveled to Rapa Nui to study the native inhabitants. Yes, that Heyerdahl. The same one famous for sailing the Pacific Ocean in a balsa wood raft that he’d christened the Kon-Tiki.

Heyerdahl and his team of archaeologists put forth a theory that an advanced tribe from South America, the “Long Ears”, had originally colonized the island and built the immense statues, but that invading Polynesians, known as “Short Ears”, later overthrew the Short Ears and all-but-exterminated them. Heyerdahl’s theories on Easter Island captivated the general public, and his books on the topic became international bestsellers. The only problem was, his theories were wrong, no truer than the fiction of Ayn Rand.

Later sociologists and archaeologists -- chief among them Jared Diamond -- revisited the topic and came to quite a different conclusion: Rapa Nui had not been colonized twice, but rather only once. And the extermination of Heyerdahl’s so-called “Long Ears” by the “Short Ears”, or invading Polynesians, was actually a civil war that befell the island’s culturally homogeneous Polynesian settlers. In Diamond’s theory, the Polynesian settlers, after landing on the island, divided the island’s land radially amongst 11 or 12 tribes, each of whom initially found adequate suitable farmland for their taro and bananas, surrounding waters with enough cowries and porpoises to feed their populations, and hordes of birds whose nests they could raid in lean times.

But the island’s resources weren’t distributed evenly. As the population grew, farmland became scarcer and naturally replenishing food sources diminished from over-harvesting. The tribes’ chiefs and priests chipped out of the bedrock of their culture the grand moai-carving traditions as a means of diffusing tribal hostilities. According to Diamond’s theory, the multi-ton moai required huge numbers of sled- or roller-logs to transport from the quarry of the dead volcano, Terevaka, in the north, to the shore all around the island.

In short order, the forests dwindled to groves, which in turn shrunk to stands and finally to single trees dotting the landscape, like the endangered species they were. With no trees for fuel or fishing boats, the tribes went to war, decimating the population and toppling each other’s statues onto strategically placed slabs to ensure the statues would shatter. The arrival of the Europeans, then, came as the final coup de grace.


XI. Slippery People

Diamond first published his theory just five years after Chile’s longtime dictator, Augusto Pinochet, stepped down from power in 1990. Pinochet’s own history with the island was patriarchal and rather tortured.

After securing his place as Chile’s premier following his US-backed coup, underrated dictator and shrew-lookalike Augusto Pinochet placed Easter Island, as it was then known, under martial law. Pinochet ordered the construction of numerous military bases on the island, visiting it three times over the course of his iron-and-oft-ham-fisted rule. Yet despite his relatively frequent visits to an island with so few people, Pinochet refused to attend the opening ceremony of Rapa Nui’s Mataveri Airport. Turns out, the U.S. had negotiated to have Rapa Nui’s runway lengthened in the event that any U.S. space shuttles required emergency landing.

But why did Pinochet throw a tantrum over the country who’d backed his coup petitioning to have Rapa Nui’s runway lengthened? Well, at the time, the U.S.’ public denunciation of his human rights abuses had chafed his rather tender ego, an ego betrayed by some of the more famous photos of him still circulating today. In one of them, he sports a colorful lei set against otherwise Mao-gray military garb, posing with a native Rapa Nui woman for a photograph. Despite the lei, he still looked like a shrew.

Turns out, both Castro and Pinochet looked like shrews.

Turns out, both Castro and Pinochet looked like shrews.

But long before Diamond and Pinochet, around the time the Rapanui were carving out a new existence in the South Pacific, a distant cousin of the Rapanui was stroking his wispy beard before a military campaign along the Silk Road in Asia. Unaccustomed to urban warfare and the staunch resistance put up by the city-dwellers in the city he was besieging, this wispy-bearded conqueror instructed each member of his 50,000-strong force to slaughter 24 citizens as retaliation for the city’s defiance.

Over the next few days, the warriors littered the land with the blood, limbs, and entrails of up to 1.2-million people in what is still, to this day, one of the bloodiest massacres in human history. In the process, much of the Silk Road fell under the control of this wispy-bearded warrior: Genghis Khan.

Later studies of human gene forms found that the Rapanui people prior to European arrival shared genetic markers with mainland Asians, including Genghis Khan. But exactly how many Rapanui people were there sharing haplogroup C with the tens of millions of Mongols that farmed the Mongolian-Manchurian grassland during Genghis Khan’s reign?

That answer gets us back to Collapse author Jared Diamond and his 1995 hypothesis that Rapa Nui was an archetypal case, if not the archetypal case, of ecocide in human history. Diamond found 20,000 a plausible enough number, while field scientists studying Rapa Nui fires and ancient trash heaps settled on much smaller numbers, perhaps only as many as 3,000 inhabitants at the island’s peak.


XII. What a Day That Was

Diamond was not to have the last word. In 2011, field researchers Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt, published their groundbreaking work The Statues that Walked, based on numerous seasons of fieldwork, that the Rapa Nui had not felled trees to transport the moai. Nor had the locomotion of those giant monoliths required more than a few people and a handful of sturdy ropes. Lipo and Hunt enlisted the help of National Geographic to prove it in a 2012 special by the same name. Over the course of the episode their crew of fewer than 25 succeeded in positioning a gigantic statue in place, without the need of log-rollers or large groups.

While we may never know exactly what happened on the island of Rapa Nui, its history does provide crucial lessons for our society today. The destruction that invasive species can wreak on an environment, such as the rats of Rapa Nui, is rarely reported. The customs forms you fill out when re-entering the US are no doubt in part because of this serious concern.

Further, the Rapa Nui people’s survival demonstrates the sheer difficulty of surviving in a place with shallow and increasingly poor soil, as Rapa Nui’s became as the native vegetation disappeared. An obvious lesson, no doubt, but one worth bearing in mind as we continue to clear the Earth of nearly a tenth of one percent of its forests each year, an area roughly the size of Delaware, for agriculture. Many scientists and farmers believe we need not clear more land to feed the world, we simply must use the land under development more intelligently. For example, by adopting Regenerative Agricultural practices.

Yet all is not folly. For we’ve witnessed, in just the last decade alone, the rate of global deforestation drop by 50%. Positive developments like the aforementioned regenerative agriculture, precision farming, and an increasingly plant-based diet across the world suggest rates of deforestation may continue to decline. (Holistic management practitioners might dispute this, of course.) Especially when offset by systematic plantings through organizations like One Tree Planted and my hometown’s own Trees Atlanta.

Rapa Nui is instructive, then, not only in its history, but also in its future. In the course of a little over a decade, Chile’s forestry authority CONAF has planted over 70,000 of the salt-resistant aito trees across Easter Island. These natives of Polynesia have grown nearly 20 feet in the last ten years. Largely because of the walking statues that have perplexed visitors for centuries, Rapa Nui also supports a growing tourism industry. While debates smolder about whether tourism can be the bedrock of a sustainable economy, we can view tourism more broadly as a symbol of the service-based ecosystems that will likely continue to develop amidst the sharing economy and cradle-to-cradle mentality of trailblazing companies. Effective stewardship welcomes so many filaments of silken joy, to stonewall it is to scorn life itself. To quote Chile’s former President, Michelle Bachelet: “You all want to know what is my dream? Very simple. To walk along the beach, holding the hand of my lover.” A dream within reach.


XIII. Further Reading (On soil degradation after deforestation) On the type of palm related to Chilean wine palm - For U.S. states by size (Delaware is 1,954 sq. mi.) - For annual net forest loss, after accounting for re-plantings, published by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (Indicating that from 1990 to 2010, Earth’s lost an average of 5.4 million hectares of trees, which converts to 2,031 sq. mi.)