For many school children, one of the most fascinating stories is that of the giant statues of Easter Island – the most remote piece of land in the Pacific. These enormous constructions were built by a people who had all but died out when the first Dutch explorers alighted upon the island in 1722.
There is something intriguing about lost civilisations – whether it is the Mayan cities in the jungle, Newgrange or the inexplicable Easter Island statues. The unexplained captivates our attention. Why did they build these monuments? How did they – with no machines – hoist these 75 ton hulks upright. What did they symbolise?
Given the remoteness of the place – 2,400 miles off the Coast of Chile and 1,400 miles from the next nearest island – the other unfathomable is how did they get there in the first place? When the Dutchman, Jacob Roggeveen, first landed on the island, the last few natives had only leaky canoes which could hardly float let alone carry people over thousands of miles of ocean. So who were the Easter Islanders, where did they come from and why did they disappear?
When the Dutch arrived, the island had no trees above shrub level, very little fertile soil, few native birds, plants or wildlife (apart from thousands of rats) and a half-starved human population who, naively, showed no fear of the Westerners.
How could these desperate people have built such monuments which are the biggest anywhere in Polynesia? In all there are 300 of these statues and at least 25 surpass anything seen in Tahiti, Hawaii or Samoa. There must therefore have been a rich, well-fuelled and well-fed population with its own political structure to erect such things. But why did they go to all the trouble?
Today, modern archaeology answers most of those questions. But for at least three hundred years, Easter Island and its mysterious giant statues was the source of all sorts of fantastic yarns from a lost Aztec tribe to the fashionable, turn of the 19th century theory of an alien visitation.
In fact, the real story is more interesting and is highly relevant for us today. (For those interested in it see Collapse by Jared Diamond.)
The Easter Islanders were part of the great Polynesian wave of discoveries which saw the populations of today’s Fiji and Tonga sail out into the Pacific in large canoes, capable of holding up to twenty people, live animals plus water and supplies for what must have been voyages of up to four or five weeks.
This Polynesian age of discovery occurred about 800AD. Those who landed in Easter, found a paradise full of trees for fuel and shelter, land mammals for food and abundant sea-food. The population grew to a peak of 30,000 and this is when the problems started. The different chiefs on the island started to build statues to their Gods which served two purposes: the first was piety and the second was to show the other chief who was the top dog on the island. So the nobility involved themselves in a conspicuous war of showing off – the bigger the statue, the bigger the chief. This is a pre-historic version of today’s conspicuous buying of the fastest car, the biggest house or the fanciest kitchen.
Archaeologists point to gigantic unfinished statues which remained in the quarries and were over 270 tons. There is no way the islanders would have ever been able to lift these, but it shows the megalomania that was knocking around in downtown Easter circa 1400 AD. The problem with the statues was that they demanded almost all the resources of the island while their purpose was simply to flatter the vanity of the local chieftain.
They were pulled by at least 500 humans using sheer muscle. This implied enormous food resources to feed the pullers and suggests that every statue signalled a period of intensive agricultural development to generate the food surplus to feed the workers. A second issue is that the ropes used for all the pulling were made from the bark of local trees, so again every statue signalled the felling of hundreds of palm trees for ropes. Third, more trees again were need to create the “wheels” upon which these huge slabs of rock were placed and moved.
If economists were describing it today in our modern parlance we might say that the local economy was growing at full tilt with full employment but an increasing amount of output was being focussed on the construction sector. Had an ancient ESRI report been published, it might have questioned the robustness of this building boom because the picture begins to emerge that every giant statue took a giant bite out of the island’s natural resources. As more and more forests were cleared, the top-soil eroded quicker, reducing the agricultural yield and ultimately leaving the land useless.
Initially in response, the Islanders switched to deep sea fishing using the same sturdy canoes that originally brought them to the island. Dolphin appeared to be a favourite but archaeological evidence indicates that sometime around 1500 AD dolphin disappeared from the diet. Why? Most probably because they did not have any wood left to build the strong canoes and therefore had to fish closer to the land in the leaky boats that they had when the Dutch arrived.
Thus every giant statue built and the wood wasted, had the effect of tightening a noose around the population’s throats. Simply put, the quicker their parents erected giant statues for the titillation of their vain chiefs, the quicker their descendants would starve. Easter Island, without wood and therefore without wild mammals, birds, fishing and soil protection, slowly starved to death. Records show that the civilisation which built the most impressive structures in Polynesia was reduced to cannibalism. They were doomed by their own chiefs’ obsession with opulence, flashy statues and keeping up with the Joneses.
It is tragically telling that when Captain Cook arrived on Easter Island in 1775 with a Tahitian translator (who could communicate with them in ancient Polynesian), the surviving natives excitedly repeated the word miru which was their word for timber.
That was all they wanted and they were prepared to trade anything for it. The question for us modern observers of the tragedy of the Easter Islanders is whether they at some stage twigged that every time they cut down a tree they were signing their own death sentence or whether they were blissfully unaware of the link. My hunch is that they knew, but the short-term obsession with conspicuous displays of power and wealth overwhelmed them and, like all humans, they gambled that something would turn up at the last minute to save them.
Now fast-forward to Ireland today and let’s examine our spending splurge. We likewise are burning through a precious resource and that is credit. Like the ancients cutting through a large swathe of forest, we are absorbing enormous amounts of credit and spending it frivolously.
It is driving up the cost of property, inflation and consumer spending. Like the hey-day of the giant statue building period, it is giving the impression of full employment.
But as the ESRI pointed out yesterday, much of this employment is coming from the construction sector. In fact, take construction and its attendant industries out of the equation and there is not much vibrancy here. But like the ancient Polynesians we are caught in the headlights of wanting to buy better, bigger and more expensive stuff than our neighbours. In the process, we burn through other people’s credit.
What happens when this resource dries up or the price of it rises? Modern societies rarely turn to cannibalism nor suffer massive population loss, but undoubtedly there will be serious political consequences. Will people ask, as they do now of the Easter Islanders, how did they not see it coming?