Easter Island is a small island, occupying 163 square kilometers in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. It is considered to be the most remote place on Earth--it is the spot furthest away from any other populated landfall. The island is perhaps most famous for the stone megaliths found there, huge heads with impassive faces called "moai" carved for unknown reasons by the islanders. The island was named Easter Island by a Dutch explorer who landed there on Easter Sunday, 1722. It is called Rapa Nui in the language of those who inhabited the island (who are also called the Rapa Nui) and Isla de Pascua in Spanish. The island is currently Chilean territory.
Some historians believe that Polynesian islanders were the first humans to populate Easter Island in about 700 c.e., while others argue that the island was inhabited as early as 300 c.e. It has had a turbulent history involving European visitors who brought smallpox, the plague, slave raids, and war to the island, decimating the population and contributing to the collapse of its culture and economy. The island's history is complex and subject to ongoing archaeological interpretation.
Easter Island is often given as an example of a societal collapse that was due, in part, to mismanagement of natural resources. The population of the island has risen and fallen in conjunction with the fluctuations in its ecosystem. Seafaring people from Polynesia arrived on Easter Island perhaps as early as the fourth century, coming to an island that is believed to have been covered in forest. The land was very fertile, and the ease with which food grew led to a rapid increase in the island's population. The Easter Island palm, part of the island's subtropical forest, was tall enough to provide timber suitable for homes and canoes and was also available for fuel.
Present-day Easter Island is deforested; many of its unique tree species are now extinct. Competing theories abound as to how the deforestation occurred--some blame the islanders for using trees to erect their statues or for firewood; others speculate that the Little Ice Age, which occurred between 1650 and 1850, may have affected the island's forests. (The term "Little Ice Age" is used differently by different writers. Many use it to refer to the climate cooling from about 1300 to 1850, while others use it for the latter half of that interval, when cooling was greatest, beginning around 1550 or 1600.) Perhaps because of deforestation, the island's soil has eroded over the years. This erosion may have also been sped along by agricultural development, including sheep farming.
As the island became deforested and the soil became less fertile, the islanders' entire community structure disintegrated. Resources were consumed steadily with no conservation plan. People began to live in caves rather than in homes, because wood was no longer available, and it is thought that the islanders were also unable to build canoes, although they may have built canoes out of reeds rather than trees.
As deforestation and soil erosion led to extinction of the trees and reeds, the Rapa Nui people were unable to build new canoes, so they began to eat birds and mollusks rather than fish and sea mammals. Eventually, the birds on the island, both native and migratory, neared extinction. With no birds to pollinate the trees and other forest plants, the deforestation of the island increased. With food and fuel diminishing rapidly, the islanders' quality of life suffered dramatically.
By the time of European contact, Easter Island was nearly completely deforested, and the islanders were malnourished by their limited diet. The ships that arrived from Europe brought smallpox, which led to a severe decline in the island's population. European contact also led to slave raids on the islanders. Interisland wars over food and other resources may have contributed to the island's population decline as well. These factors, in addition to the mismanagement of the island's ecosystem, eventually led the island's population to shrink dramatically. In 1877, Easter Island was home to only 111 humans. In 2002, the population had rebounded to 3,700.
European ships also contained rats, which helped destroy many of the native seabird and landbird species on the island. They also brought chickens, which helped destroy many of the insect and plant species. Rats also contributed to the extinction of the Easter Island palm by eating its seeds.
1) Arnold, C. Easter Island: Giant Stone Statues Tell of a Rich and Tragic Past. New York: Clarion Books, 2004.
2) Bahn, P. The Enigmas of Easter Island. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
3) Fischer, S. R. Island at the End of the World: The Turbulent History of Easter Island. London: Reaktion Books, 2006.
4) Loret, J., and J. Tanacredi, eds. Easter Island: Scientific Exploration into the World's Environmental Problems in Microcosm. New York: Springer, 2003.
5) Routledge, Mrs. Scoresby. The Mystery of Easter Island. Reprint. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007.
6) Van Tilburg, J. Easter Island: Archaeology, Ecology, and Culture. London: British Museum Press, 1994.
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