Lorax Hall of Shame: Easter Island
My gloomy current read is Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize winning author of "Guns, Germs, and Steel." Everybody should read it. Here's Cliff-notes coverage of one section.
Easter, a 66 square mile volcanic island, is the most remote place in the world, being separated by 1,300 miles from the nearest island and by 2,300 miles from Chile's mainland. Radiocarbon dating suggests it was settled around 900 C.E. At its peak the population was 15,000-30,000 people.
In 1722 the Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen marvelled, as everyone does, at the hundreds of gigantic stone statues (up to 270 tons and 70 feet tall) scattered across the barren countryside. Noting that the isolated islanders had only tiny, leaky canoes, he wondered how colonization had taken place. Also noting there was not even one tree anywhere on Easter's 66 square miles, he wrote:
"We could not comprehend how it was possible that these people, who are devoid of heavy thick timber for making any machines, as well as strong ropes, nevertheless had been able to erect such images..."The Easter Island he saw was a wretched place:
"We counted as sand the withered grass, hay, or other scorched and burnt vegetation, because its wasted appearance could give no other impression than of a singular poverty and barrenness."Over the centuries many wondered how the huge statues had been transported and erected; finally Thor Heyerdahl (of Kon-Tiki fame) ASKED the islanders.
"They were indignant that archaeologists had never deigned to ask them, and they erected a statue for him without a crane to prove their point."They used stones, logs, and ropes to do the job. Unless you prefer the aliens-from-outer-space theory, it seems the statue thing required (a) huge amounts of fibrous tree bark for long thick ropes and (b) big trees for sleds, rollers, ladders, and levers. Well, WHAT trees?
Scientists have pieced together an answer. Pollen analysis, fossilized palm nuts, and casts of palm trunks in ancient lava prove the former presence of a unique Easter Island palm with diameters exceeding seven feet; it was, in its day, the largest palm in the world.
Pollen of five other palms has been found at Easter, and charcoal recovered from ancient fires matches 16 other now-extinct species. It seems Easter once supported a diverse forest, with trees up to 100 feet tall being regularly felled to supply the islanders with things like firewood, canoes, timber and rope, cloth, harpoons and carving, and fuel for thousands of extravagant cremations. Farms also entailed massive clearing.
Deforestation began shortly after the colonists arrived. It led to soil erosion by rain and wind. Crops deteriorated when they were no longer grown under the palm trees that had shaded and protected them -- and the soil -- from fierce sun, evaporation, wind, and hard rains. Without trees, farmers no longer had the plant leaves, fruit and twigs they had used as compost; desiccation and nutrient leaching ensued. Erosion drove soil and minerals downhill, burying statues, settlements, and gardens.
Research indicates the very last of the palms, which had thrived on Easter for several hundred thousand years before man arrived, were cut down sometime before the seventeenth century. By then, deforestation had forced the upland plantations to be abandoned and the statue industry to end; angry tribes who had once one-upped each other with larger and larger statues now found their satisfaction in toppling and breaking the old ones. The last standing statue was toppled and broken in 1840. (In the modern era, cranes have put them back on their feet -- the tourists like them better that way.)
Bird and other vertebrate bones (found in early middens) prove that Easter, which today supports not one native land bird, was once home to at least six. It also had at least 25 nesting seabirds; its lack of predators (until humans arrived) had made it the richest breeding site in Polynesia.
Over time middens show many food sources vanishing from the diet, as species were exterminated and as a dwindling stock of trees for seaworthy canoes precluded ocean fishing for porpoise and other fish once a primary food of the islanders.
Most sources of wild food were lost. Land birds disappeared completely, seabirds were reduced to tiny populations. Shellfish over time became less numerous and smaller (due to "preferential over-harvesting of larger individuals"). The only unflaggingly available food source: rats.
"Easter's formerly complexly integrated society collapsed in an epidemic of civil war." I'm not going to describe the starvation and cannibalism which followed.
In the 1870s Chile annexed Easter, which became a sheep ranch. Grazing by sheep, goats and horses caused further soil erosion and eliminated most of what had remained of the native vegetation. In the 1870s, there were 111 islanders left.
|UPDATE: Sigmund, Carl and Alfred have taken exception (on their site and also in the comments here) with aspects of this abstract and especially with one of the posted comments (which is quoted by the comment-leaver, NOT from Diamond's book, but from this website: different author, different tack). |
I am well aware there are many complex issues involved in conservation and lack thereof, and I am not an expert. The Lorax Hall of Shame award, in its purest form, is simply given to those who, face to face with the last of something, take it, even knowing there will be no more. As a fisherman said about using radar to pick off the last populations of cod on Georges Bank: "If somebody is going to get the last fish, it's going to be me." The further ahead one is able to look, the sooner one realizes this point has arrived. In my opinion, we're there.
Technorati Tags: History, Folly, Environment, Farming, Logging