The hungry giants of Easter Island

by Ronald Wright

the giant statues of Easter Island

On Easter Day 1722, a Dutch fleet in the South Seas sighted an unknown island so treeless and eroded they mistook its barren hills for dunes. They were amazed, as they drew near, to see hundreds of standing stone images as tall as an Amsterdam house. “We could not comprehend how it was possible that these people, who are devoid of heavy thick timber [or] strong ropes, nevertheless had been able to erect such images, which were fully thirty feet high.” Captain Cook later confirmed the island’s desolation, finding: “no wood for fuel; nor any fresh water worth taking on board.” Nature, he concluded, had “been exceedingly sparing of her favours to this spot.”

Ronald Wright

Ronald Wright keynote speaker at Ecojustice anniversary Gala

Thurs Oct 28

Award-winning novelist, historian and essayist Ronald Wright speaks at the 20th Anniversary Celebration of Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence). Law Courts Inn, 4th floor, 800 Smithe St,, Vancouver. Formal dinner & silent auction. Tickets: 604-685-5618 ext. 293 or online at www.ecojustice.ca/20years If unable to attend, please consider an online donation at www.ecojustice.ca.

The law, especially environmental law, is worthless if it’s not enforced. Ecojustice takes on the important work of making sure it is, defending the public good against spineless governments and self-serving industries.
– Ronald Wright.

The great mystery of Easter Island that struck all early visitors was not just that colossal statues stood in such a tiny and remote corner of the world, but that the stones seemed to have been put there without tackle, as if set down from the sky. The figures stood there mockingly, defying common sense.

We now know the answer to the riddle, and it is a chilling one. Pace Captain Cook, nature had not been unusually stingy with her favours. Pollen studies of the island’s crater lakes have shown that it was once well watered and green, with rich volcanic soil supporting thick woods of the Chilean wine palm, a fine timber that can grow tall as an oak. No natural disaster had changed that: no eruption, drought or disease. The catastrophe on Easter Island was man.

Rapa Nui, as Polynesians call the place, was settled during the fifth century A.D. by migrants arriving in big catamarans stocked with dogs, chickens, edible rats, sugarcane, bananas, sweet potatoes and other crops. Within five or six centuries, the settlers multiplied to about ten thousand people – a lot for sixty-four square miles. They built villages with good houses on stone footings, and cleared all the best land for fields. Socially they split into clans and ranks – nobles, priests, commoners – and there may have been a paramount chief or “king.” Like Polynesians on some other islands, each clan began to honour its ancestry with impressive stone images. These were hewn from the yielding volcanic tuff of a crater and set up on platforms by the shore. As time went on, the statue cult became increasingly rivalrous and extravagant, reaching its apogee during Europe’s high Middle Ages.

Each generation of images grew bigger than the last, demanding more timber, rope, and manpower for hauling to the ahu, or altars. Trees were cut faster than they could grow, a problem worsened by the settlers’ rats, who ate the seeds and saplings. By A.D. 1400, no more tree pollen shows in the annual strata of the crater lakes: the woods had been utterly destroyed by both the largest and the smallest mammal on the island.

We might think that in such a limited place where, from the height of Terevaka, islanders could survey their whole world at a glance, steps would have been taken to halt the cutting, to protect the saplings, to replant. We might think that as trees became scarce, the erection of statues would have been curtailed and timber reserved for essential purposes such as boatbuilding and roofing. But that is not what happened. The people who felled the last tree could see it was the last, could know with complete certainty that there would never be another. And they felled it anyway.

All shade vanished from the land except the hard-edged shadows cast by the petrified ancestors, whom the people loved all the more because they made them feel less alone. For a generation or so there was enough old lumber to haul the great stones and still keep a few canoes seaworthy for deep water. But the day came when the last good boat was gone. The people then knew there would be little seafood and – worse – no way of escape. The word for wood, rakau, became the dearest in their language. Wars broke out over ancient planks and worm-eaten bits of jetsam. They ate all their dogs and nearly all the nesting birds and the unbearable stillness of the place deepened with animal silences. There was nothing left now but the moai, the stone giants who had devoured the land. And still these promised the return of plenty if only the people would keep faith and honour them with increase.

“But how will we take you to the altars?” asked the carvers, and the moai answered that when the time came they would walk there on their own. So the sound of hammering still rang from the quarries and the crater walls came alive with hundreds of new giants, growing even bigger now they had no need of human transport. The tallest ever set on an altar is over thirty feet high and weighs eighty tons; the tallest ever carved is sixty-five feet long and more than two hundred tons, comparable to the greatest stones worked by the Incas or Egyptians. Except, of course, that it never moved an inch.

By the end there were more than a thousand moai, one for every ten islanders in their heyday. But the good days were gone – gone with the good earth, which had been carried away on the endless wind and washed by flash floods into the sea. The people had been seduced by a kind of progress that becomes a mania, an “ideological pathology” as some anthropologists call it. When Europeans arrived in the eighteenth century the worst was over; they found only one or two living souls per statue, a sorry remnant, “small, lean, timid and miserable,” in Cook’s words. Now without roof beams, many people were dwelling in caves; their only buildings were stone hen-houses where they guarded this last non-human protein from each other day and night. The Europeans heard tales of how the warrior class had taken power, how the island had convulsed with burning villages, gory battles and cannibal feasts.

Even this was not quite the nadir. Between the Dutch visit of 1722 and Cook’s fifty years later, the people again made war on each other and, for the first time, on the ancestors as well. Cook found moai toppled from their platforms, cracked and beheaded, the ruins littered with human bone. There is no reliable account of how or why this happened. Perhaps it started as the ultimate atrocity between enemy clans, like European nations bombing cathedrals in the Second World War. Perhaps it began with the shattering of the island’s solitude by strangers in floating castles of unimaginable wealth and menace. These possessors of wood were also bringers of death and disease. Scuffles with sailors often ended with natives gunned down on the beach.

We do not know exactly what promises had been made by the demanding moai to the people, but it seems likely that the arrival of an outside world might have exposed certain illusions of the statue cult, replacing compulsive belief with equally compulsive disenchantment. Whatever its animus, the destruction on Rapa Nui raged for at least seventy years. Each foreign ship saw fewer upright statues, until not one giant was left standing on its altar. (Those standing today have been restored.) The work of demolition must have been extremely arduous for the few descendants of the builders. Its thoroughness and deliberation speak of something deeper than clan warfare: of a people angry at their reckless fathers, of a revolt against the dead.

The lesson that Rapa Nui holds for our world has not gone unremarked. In the epilogue to their 1992 book, Easter Island, Earth Island, the archaeologists Paul Bahn and John Flenley are explicit. The islanders, they write:

“…carried out for us the experiment of permitting unrestricted population growth, profligate use of resources, destruction of the environment and boundless confidence in their religion to take care of the future. The result was an ecological disaster leading to a population crash... Do we have to repeat the experiment on [a] grand scale?... Is the human personality always the same as that of the person who felled the last tree?”

Excerpted from the 2004 Massey Lectures: A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright, published by House of Anansi ©Ronald Wright 2004, 2010.