Pixel Tracker

Tuesday, March 26 , 2019, 2:32 am | Fair 48º

Your Health

Karen Telleen-Lawton: Rapa Nui’s Parable for Modern Man

Even the remote island of Rapa Nui cannot be left untouched by stray pieces of the Pacific Ocean’s garbage patches. Click to view larger
Even the remote island of Rapa Nui cannot be left untouched by stray pieces of the Pacific Ocean’s garbage patches. (Karen Telleen-Lawton / Noozhawk photo)

I just returned from Rapa Nui, otherwise known as Easter Island, which is over 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile.  

My husband and I were drawn because of a fascination with islands, ancient migrations and ecology — and the interplay among them. We hoped to learn whether the original inhabitants got a bad rap for destroying their habitat and subsequently their civilization. 

Easter Island was one of the last places to be settled in the global human migrations over the last 50,000 years.

It is likely that Polynesians from the Gambier or Marquesas Islands settled Rapa Nui sometime between 800 and 1200 AD. They came equipped with families, seeds, chickens and rats. 

Around 1000 to 1200 AD, the Rapa Nui people began carving fantastic human figures from lava: the famous moai.

As centuries passed, statues were built increasingly larger — up to 32 feet high — requiring amazing feats of transportation. Logging and clearing fields for planting crops likely continued on a greater scale to provide rolling surfaces for transporting the huge pieces around the island.

A Dutch ship under the command of navigator Jacob Roggeveen arrived on Easter Day, 1722; journals apparently described a happy and healthy population as well as hundreds of standing statues.

The next recorded visit was two Spanish ships half a century later. British explorer James Cook came in 1774 and is said to have witnessed desperate people and few standing statues.

What happened to decimate a civilization so prosperous that it could devote substantial resources to create the moai?

In Collapse, Jared Diamond proposes this as an ecological disaster, the Rapa Nui having used every large tree for statue transportation.

Archeological record indicates at least three species grew to almost 50 feet, but the trees remaining at contact time were too small for making even fishing canoes. When life became untenable, clans turned against each other, but they couldn’t flee the island.

Other scientists have added rats to the blame, having excavated ancient palm seeds gnawed by Polynesian rats. Even their global position, including ocean currents and remoteness, may have added to the eventual demise of civilization.

Evidence supports each of these hypotheses, yet poking around one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world, you can‘t help wondering what the Rapa Nui discussed after the week-long visit by the Dutch.

Roggeveen's arrival was possibly the first outside contact in 500–900 years. The Dutch had killed a dozen Rapa Nui in a “misunderstanding,” but more importantly they likely brought diseases that ravaged the native population.

A video in the island museum hypothesizes that the fallout from the Dutch encounter was warfare among the dozen or more clans; one result being that they pulled down each other’s statues.

Or perhaps the Rapa Nui felt their ancestor gods had failed them, and they lowered the statues with intent or even reverence.

Later slave raids by Chilean ships further decimated their numbers.

What’s clear today is that the outside world has impacted this tiny island for a millennium. Many native plant and animal species went extinct following initial settlement.

The tiny island supports one of the longest runways in the world, having once been designated as an abort site for space shuttle flights from Vandenberg AFB. 

And now, tiny bits of plastic coat the surfline at Anakena, one of only two beaches. The garbage gyre has reached Rapa Nui.

Perhaps the bad rap belongs to all of us.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

Support Noozhawk Today!

Our professional journalists work tirelessly to report on local news so you can be more informed and engaged in your community. This quality, local reporting is free for you to read and share, but it's not free to produce.

You count on us to deliver timely, relevant local news, 24/7. Can we count on you to invest in our newsroom and help secure its future?

We provide special member benefits to show how much we appreciate your support.

I would like give...
Great! You're joining as a Red-Tailed Hawk!
  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.


Special Reports

Heroin Rising
<p>Lizette Correa shares a moment with her 9-month-old daughter, Layla, outside their Goleta home. Correa is about to graduate from Project Recovery, a program of the Santa Barbara Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse, and is determined to overcome her heroin addiction — for herself and for her daughter. “I look at her and I think ‘I need to be here for her and I need to show her an example, I don’t want her to see me and learn about drugs’,” she says.</p>

In Struggle to Get Clean, and Stay That Way, Young Mother Battles Heroin Addiction

Santa Barbara County sounds alarm as opiate drug use escalates, spreads into mainstream population
Safety Net Series
<p>Charles Condelos, a retired banker, regularly goes to the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics for his primary care and to renew his prescription for back pain medication. He says Dr. Charles Fenzi, who was treating him that day at the Westside Clinic, and Dr. Susan Lawton are some of the best people he’s ever met.</p>

Safety Net: Patchwork of Clinics Struggles to Keep Santa Barbara County Healthy

Clinics that take all comers a lifeline for low-income patients, with new health-care law about to feed even more into overburdened system. First in a series
Prescription for Abuse
<p>American Medical Response emergency medical technicians arrive at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital with little time to spare for victims of prescription drug overdoses.</p>

Quiet Epidemic of Prescription Drug Abuse Taking a Toll on Santa Barbara County

Evidence of addiction shows an alarming escalation, Noozhawk finds in Prescription for Abuse special report
Mental Health
<p>Rich Detty and his late wife knew something was wrong with their son, Cliff, but were repeatedly stymied in their attempts to get him help from the mental health system. Cliff Detty, 46, died in April while in restraints at Santa Barbara County’s Psychiatric Health Facility.</p>

While Son Struggled with Mental Illness, Father Fought His Own Battle

Cliff Detty's death reveals scope, limitations of seemingly impenetrable mental health system. First in a series