On Easter Sunday 1722, a Dutch expedition to the South Pacific in search of the mythical continent of Terra Australis approached one of the most remote islands in the world. Jacob Roggeveen, the expedition leader, gave it the name of Easter Island. After coming ashore with a landing party and summarily massacring a dozen or so curious natives within minutes of their arrival, Roggeveen took time to explore the island. It was unlike anywhere he had ever been. Unusually for the South Pacific it was almost entirely devoid of trees. The Island’s people seemed to have a materially undeveloped society, with Roggeveen noting that they lacked rudimentary cooking vessels and earthen pots, cooking their food on hot stones instead. He assumed that they subsisted largely on fish but their canoes were leaky and could not support more than two people. Yet, as the island was dotted with hundreds of colossal statues known as Moai, there was evidence that a more complex civilisation had once existed.
Initially Roggeveen did not believe that the seemingly primitive islanders could have constructed them. He wrote in his log: ‘[T]hese stone figures caused us to be filled with wonder, for we could not understand how it was possible that people who are destitute of heavy or thick timber, and also of stout cordage, out of which to construct gear, had been able to erect them; nevertheless some of these statues were 30 feet in height and broad in proportion.’
Ever since Roggeveen’s return, Easter Island (now known by its Polynesian name Rapa Nui) has fascinated people around the world. What had happened there prior to the arrival of the first Europeans?
In 2005, Jared Diamond published the bestselling Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, a book which quickly became essential reading across a range of academic disciplines. Diamond argued that, historically, societies have collapsed because as human population expands, and people begin to demand a more and more lavish material existence, this puts unsustainable pressure on natural resources. The end result is catastrophe. Diamond adds that these factors are often exacerbated by changes in climate. We must learn from this, he warns, or our society will soon meet a similar fate to those who have gone before us.
The collapse of complex civilisation on Rapa Nui is a central case study in Collapse. It is an example, Diamond argues, of a society whose collapse was entirely due to ‘ecological suicide’. By invoking suicide, Diamond asserts that the collapse of civilisation on Rapa Nui was down to the deliberate and foolish acts of its inhabitants. ‘How much past environmental damage was unintentional and imperceptible’, he writes, ‘and how much was perversely wrought by people acting in full awareness of the consequences? For instance, what were Easter Islanders saying as they cut down the last tree on their island?’