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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.

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