Learning From the Self-Destructive Disappearance of the Easter Island Polynesian Society


There are societies throughout human history that have seemed to simply vanish. These stories, from the disappearing civilizations of the Maya to the Khmer, both of whom have left behind the astonishing spoils of their culture when it was at its peak, are enduring mysteries as well as grave reminders of how quickly a powerful society can be destroyed. Or, as is the case with the indigenous culture of the Easter Islands, destroy themselves.

Jared Diamond, a professor of Geography and Physiology at UCLA, and the author of three groundbreaking books, The Third Chimpanzee, Guns, Germs and Steel, and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, has written an intriguing article for Away.Com. The piece, a short profile on the people of the extremely remote Easter Island, details how this indigenous community went from a thriving, rule-bound hierarchical society into a decaying island of warring, cannibalistic tribes. This happened mainly due to increased deforestation,which proved disastrous for the soil, as well as the over exploitation of their fisheries and other food sources. Abundance quickly turned into scarcity, and the society collapsed.

This image provided by the US Army shows Army Spc. Monica Brown, a medic from the 782nd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, who received a silver star at an award ceremony at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Thursday, March 20, 2008. Brown is the second female since World War II to earn the Silver Star award for her gallant actions while in combat. Pentagon policy prohibits women from serving in front-line combat roles – in the infantry, armor or artillery, for example. But the nature of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with no real front lines, has seen women soldiers take part in close-quarters combat more than previous conflicts. Four Army nurses in World War II were the first women to receive the Silver Star, though three nurses serving in World War I were awarded the medal posthumously last year, according to the Army's website.

The famous Moai, or stone statues, of Easter Island

Easter Island, only 64-square miles and located in the Pacific Ocean, is situated in a geographically advantageous position. The subtropical location, keeping it mild, and its volcanic origins enriching the soil, made it an island paradise for its early inhabitants. The fact that the closest neighbors are 2,000 miles to the west (South America) and 1,400 miles east (the island of Pitcairn) made it particularly immune to unwanted guests. Today, instead of having a culturally rich, long-standing society of indigenous Eastern Islanders to learn from, and interact with, we are left with their enigmatic Moai, the famous stone statues that dot the island and are reliably the only thing most people know about the place.

In just a few centuries, the surfeit of forest, plants and animals that the indigenous society on the island enjoyed were completely wiped out. This all happened, Diamond writes, because the Easter Islanders plundered their natural resources and set into a motion a self-destructive arc in which each new generation had more mouths to feed with less resources to do so. The parallels to our current situation, not only in America but on a global scale, are the thrust of this insightful piece.

We recommend you give Diamond's piece a read here, to find out how a complex society with a geography that made it almost a perfect, temperate, resource-abundant island saw the society it supported implode. Today, Easter Island serves as a warning to the rest of us for what happens when a people exploit their environment for short term gain.