The Question

The Reading

          Easter Island, located in the Pacific Ocean about 4000 miles from the coast of Chile, is one of the most isolated places in the world.  It is best known for the Moai, monolithic statues of human figures carved from volcanic rock and located around the island.  While today the Moai are a great source of revenue from tourists who flock to the island, research suggests that their construction actually led to the decline and eventual collapse of the island’s culture.

               First of all, evidence suggests that the obsession which the people of Easter Island had with building the Moai led to non-productive use of natural resources, specifically of the island’s forests.  The Moai were huge, with some weighing nearly eighty tons.  Moving them from the quarries where they were carved to their intended resting spots required the use of wooden tracks equipped with log rollers.  The islanders cut down vast amounts of valuable trees for no other purpose that to move the statues across their island. 

               Moai construction continued for centuries and eventually every single tree on the island was cut down to build the aforementioned tracks.  This complete deforestation had disastrous effects on the island.  Migratory birds, which had been a big part of the islander’s diet stopped coming to Easter Island.  Meanwhile, the fishing industry on the island collapsed because the leaves of the island’s palm trees had been used to construct fishing boats.  In addition, soil erosion caused by the lack of trees made it difficult to even grown food.

               Finally, the above issues lead to a major population decline.  From a high of twenty thousand people at the peak of its civilization, only two thousand people remained when European explorers first reached Easter Island in the eighteenth century.  This mass die-off was clearly a result of the food shortage described above.  Human remains from the period suggest that the population descended into cannibalism as things got progressively worse over the years.

The Lecture

          Most people are aware of the Moai of Easter Island, as thousands of tourists flock to see them every year.  Fewer people know, however, about the people who built them and of the rise and fall of their civilization.  The reading suggests that society on the island collapsed as a result of the construction of the Moai, but recent research suggests that this was not the case at all.

          The first issue suggested in the reading passage, that the islanders cut down their valuable forests to build tracks to move the Moai, is simply not true.  More recent research suggests that the Moai were moved using a series of ropes.  Teams consisting of dozens of men fastened ropes to either side of the Moai and, well, walked them to their places by tilting them from side to side as they walked forward.  This method required no trees to be cut down and has actually been replicated by modern teams using actual Moai from the period.

          Further, the reading passage notes that the construction of the Moai eventually led to the complete deforestation of the island.  While it is true that the island was completely lacking trees by the time the first European explorers arrived, this was not the result of Moai construction.  Recently, palm seeds have been excavated which date from the period when the island was heavily forested and all of them show signs of having been gnawed on by rats.  Coincidentally, the first settlers on the island, who arrived by boat, brought rats with them as food.  It has been theorized that over the years the rats had a deadly effect on the island’s palm trees and THAT was the cause of the deforestation.

          Finally, the claim that the population of the island was in decline when Europeans arrived is also faulty.  While the author suggests that the population peaked at twenty thousand, this figure is just an old guess based on the assumption that the island was first settled in 400 AD.  Recent carbon dating indicates that the island was actually settled at around 1200 AD.  If this is the case, there simply would not have been time for a population of twenty thousand to be established.  It is likely that the two thousand people encountered by European arrivals was the largest population that the island ever supported.