The Prophecy of Rapanui

 

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ea1When the first Polynesian settlers arrived in Easter Island  with their large canoes more than a thousand years ago, they found a luxuriant, heaven like land covered with palm trees.The place was actually less hospitable than it seemed. The island was volcanic in origin, but its three volcanoes were dormant. Both temperatures and humidity were high and the only fresh water available was from the lakes inside the extinct volcanoes. Only a few species of plants and animals inhabited the land: there were no mammals, only few insects and two types of small lizards. Furthermore, as the waters that surrounded the island weren’t very fishy, the first inhabitants had to learn to live basically mainly on sweet potatoes and chickens.

ea6The islanders heavily depended on its native plants: giant palms, toronimo trees and basswood (hau).The woods from the giant palm trees were used for shelters and in particular for big canoes which enabled the settlers to fish in richer waters and catch dolphins. The basswood was used as fuel to cook or to keep warm and its fibers were used to make ropes or fishing nets. However, the forests were slowly cleared to improve farming and grow sweet potatoes. All this brought to a rapid increase in population (more than 15.000 inhabitants), but as the island was very small, its natural resources declined rapidly.

ea2Instead of taking measures of life sustainably, the clan leaders started to build large stone platforms, known as Ahu, which were used as burials, ancestor worships and to commemorate past clan chiefs. The majority of these constructions were built near the coast, around the island’s perimeter. One day they stated to erect huge monolithic stone statues (Moai) on these platforms, which took up immense amounts of  labour. Almost all the Moai have overly large heads three-eighths the size of the whole statue, which seemed to represent their deified ancestors. More than the carving, the greatest problem was the transport of the massive statues from the quarry to the Ahu and as they lack any draught animals, they had to rely on the effort of men who could only drag the statues across the island using tree trunks as wheels.

ea7The enigmatic faces of the Moai rapidly spread all over the island and they were always more and more enormous, in fact the bigger was the statue the stronger was supposed to be the clan which had made it, therefore a never-ending, competition among clans started; a devastating contest which required amazing quantities of timber. By 1600 as the island was almost completely deforested, the statue erection had to be stopped leaving many of them stranded and incompleted at the quarry. But, when did they exactly stop? When it was too late.

ea5The shortage of trees had already made people stop building houses from timber and find shelter in caves. Canoes couldn’t be built any longer, so it was now impossible to go fishing or even abandon the island. It had also become impossible to make nets for fishing. Furthemore the early deforestation had brought the island to a rapid desertification.The only source of food on the island was the chickens which became precious and primary object of theft. The lack of proteins available brought to cannibalism.The islanders were now trapped in their insane world and they  couldn’t escape the consequences of their self-inflicted, environmental collapse.

ea8Moreover the drop of the resources resulted in a state of almost permanent warfare. One of the main aims of warfare was to destroy the Ahu of opposing clans, therefore only a few burial places remained and many of the magnificent stone statues – which had cost so much – were pulled down. Only few remained standing.When the Dutch Admiral Roggeveen visited Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday 1722, the island had now become a barren wasteland, whose 3,000 inhabitants lived in a primitive state in squalid reed huts or caves, had resorted to cannibalism in order to escape famine and were still engaged in perpetual warfare.

 

The question is, how can it be that they didn’t realize what they were doing to their environment? Why didn’t they stop in time? Or better, will we be able to stop in time?

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53 thoughts on “The Prophecy of Rapanui

  1. Written by an expert teacher who is able to give out the right information clearly and engagingly while inviting the reader to seek to know more and to ask some important questions. A true parable for our times.

  2. Easter Island is very much on my list of locations to be seen in this lifetime. Have you been there Stefy? I learned a great deal from your post. i had no idea about the crisis of deforestation. One has to wonder what they were thinking? Or not thinking?

    • It is on my list as well ( veeery expensive from here) . I learnt about this story while I was gathering information for a possible trip there. In the future. Maybe. 🙂

      • Very expensive from here too Stefy. In June we are going to South America but added Galápagos. Maybe next time Easter Island. 🙂

      • Stunning. Some friends of mine went there, I guess they visited la Isla Espanola among the others , and said it was wild and amazing. You will be visiting by bike, of course !

  3. Iceland’s settlement and development has some similarities. Deforestation and overgrazing reduced much of the country to wasteland. The process was gradual enough that each generation could consider its environment “normal,” and the central government had neither the authority nor the resources to understand what was going on and to cope with it. Indeed, the political structure developed into ever larger chieftainships which in the last century of the island’s independent existence fought each other to a bloody standstill until they accepted Norwegian rule in 1262, approximately 400 years after the original Viking colonization.

    • Very interesting, Brian. This demonstrates that we share this pacman nature in every part of the world: devourers, destroyers, fighters till nothing will remain to struggle for.

  4. I have a book somewhere in my house titled, “The Natural Alien”. It argues that we have removed ourselves from nature so much so, that we feel detached from it. As if we are not a part of our environment. It also talks about why we don’t see the forest from the trees- or the deforestation from the trees. As others here have pointed out, changes to the environment become normal. This new normal is why many do not see the effects of destruction before it is to late.
    We are doing this now. Look at how we have become a throw away society. We assume there are plenty of places to hide our “garbage”. We assume there will always be enough trees for our houses and enough water to sustain us all.
    I hate to think what future generations will have to say about us. They too will wonder why we did not see our downfall coming.

    • I think the King of the Giants had understood pretty well the nature of men in a memorable passage from Gulliver’s Travels: “…a race of little odious vermins that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth “.

  5. what powerful post – because I had no idea about easter island – wow- “The islanders were now trapped in their insane world and they couldn’t escape the consequences of their self-inflicted, environmental collapse” and you told is succinctly and I hope you (and Su) get enjoy it when you make it to explore there. 🙂

      • yeah – I hear ya – but I have a feeling you both will visit there – even if not for a while. I did not realize how high it was – whew

  6. There is a somewhat different account of what happened to Easter Island.

    http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.173.2800&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    ” While his theory of ecocide has become almost paradigmatic in environmental circles, a dark and gory secret hangs over the premise of Easter Island’s self-destruction: an actual genocide terminated Rapa Nui’s indigenous populace and its culture. ”

    The article argues that slave traders and small pox was what finally decimated the inhabitants of the island.

  7. Hi teacher,
    I read this article, which deals with something very actual, such as the environment and the relationship humans have had during time and have nowadays with it. Answering your final question, I think islanders didn’t realize what they were doing to their habitat because they were unable to understand risks they were taking cutting down forests in order to place Moai and, unfortunately, it’s something is happening today too, with many people, especially businessmen, that buy huge grounds that have to be deforested to build residencial areas and shopping centres: they are interested only in money and they don’t understand that if we continue destroying our environment, our future will be totally compromised by these faults. How can we solve or, at least,reduce this event? New laws to protect forests and regulate the deforestation and more controls by the authorities. And of course, people should change their mind and think about Earth in a different way, as a treasure that has to be protected: this could be the recipe that, in my personal opinion, would be able to save our magnificent planet.

  8. Hi teacher,
    I read this article with a lot of attention, because it contains notions that I had never known before today.
    It’s interesting to learn about this population,because today their old problem has become ours.
    Many people and many companies today cut down thousands of trees or whole forests only in order to enrich themselves and they ignore the damage they do on our environment.
    Answering the last question,
    I believe that humans have the ability to understand the dangerous situation and can take action as soon as possible.
    However,as written before, money is a drug and people can’t do without that.
    In my opinion the earth is a treasure that we must not consume in this way.We must protect it.

  9. Hi teacher I read this article. It is so interesting. I think that the inhaitants did not stop beacuse they did not understand that they were going to destroy their future.
    Maybe someone more experienced would have been able to “save” them.

    Federico III e

  10. I read this article and I would say it is very interesting. It deals with very important problem for our world:”Save the earth”.In the past the islanders destroyed many forests for their own purpose without thinking to the future consequences about the entire land.Today it is the same thing: many businessmen are obsessed to make only money.They do not care about the next generations and to assure a better place to live for everybody.Past cases and history should teach all of us not to do again the same bad actions.

  11. Hi teacher,
    I really liked this article because it sends a message that is important to understand.We need the environment to live, without nature we could not survive, so it’s important for men to know that a forest is more important than money and take the right desicion by not cutting down the trees. If rich people continue to care only of their bank account we will end being like the inhabitants of the island.

    Tiziano Salvoni 3E

  12. Hi teacher
    I read this article and I found it very interesting because it made me think about our future : we have to protect our environment and we don’t have to make mistakes as the islanders did many years ago.
    I really like your blog. Byee

  13. I think that foresting is a very important problem. This is an episode of 1600 but we could have the same problem like them. There are many lands that have been deforested and in my opinion this is a big error because forests are inhabitated areas and then many species will be exincted. Human beings will realize their mistakes only when they are irreversible!

    Federico Pistola, 3E

  14. Hi teacher.
    I found the article very interesting, because it is about something new for me, such as the history of a population I did not know anything about. It is very sad for me to realize that even in the past, when people were living so close to nature, they did not take care of the environment.
    In my opinion they were too focused on themselves and they forgot the consequences of their actions. Unfortunately nothing seems to be changed; nowadays, people are interested only in money and powers continue to destroy our planet.
    I hope everybody understands very soon how precious nature is. If we do not change anything, the Earth risks to became another Easter island.

  15. Hello Prof. I have read this article and I think that it is very interesting because there are reports that I didn’t know. Unfortunately, we have had some negative examples about the cut down of the trees but humans continue to damage our Planet and they think only of money. The best thing for me is sensitize people for don’t to destroy more and save our beautiful planet.
    Ettori 3e

  16. It’s really difficult to find answers these questions.
    I suppose there could be different reasons to explain what happened:
    1) The islanders were isolated for more than a thousand years without any contacts with other populations.
    They grew to 15.000 inhabitans starting from few Polynesian settlers. They remained a primitive population with a primitive intelligence and they were unable to understand the consequences.
    2) When a conflict begins it’s hard to stop it without a winner. In these cases there isn’t a positive solution and you could arrive to the extreme consequences like the total distruption of your world.
    3) Today we are in a similar situation. We are destroying the planet with pollution, enviromental damages and other causes. We know it, many scientists know it, but the world leaders don’t do anything to solve this problem. The causes?? Personal interests profit and selfishness that make people blind to the real problems of society. If we, civilized people of XXI St century, think in this way, why should an ancient population of an isolated place in the Pacific Ocean think it differently??

  17. Dear Teacher,

    I read this article and just lost all faith in humanity.Sure,this is definitely something that’s currently going on but reading such a story and being reminded of the consequences it’ll have one day just breaks everything down.I’m not a very optimistic person and I honestly tend to think about the worst possible thing that could happen, but this clearly has been going on for way too many years and in my opinion it’ll only get worse. I’ll coherently go ahead and quote a well-known Cree prophecy : “Only after the last tree has been cut down,only after the last river has been poisoned,only after the last fish has been caught,only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”
    I’ll leave it at that.

  18. Hi teacher,
    I read this article and I really enjoy it. It’s very interesting and it deals with environment, that is nowadays in danger. We must protect it or our life in future will be completely different.

  19. Hi teacher
    I read the text and I think that the foresting is a big problem which is in every place of the word.
    I’m not very agree to cut down the trees because you put the animal’s health at risk.

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