Sunday, June 24, 2007

Easter Island: From Paradise to Purgatory

I have been reading parts of Jared Diamond’s latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I was intrigued by one chapter in which he talks about Easter Island (natively called Rapanui, cf. Hawaiian lapa nui, ‘big ridge or slope’). I’d known about EI’s large statues (moai) and its platforms (ahu) supporting the moai. I did not realize, however, until reading Diamond’s chapter, how much of an ecological disaster EI is. As Diamond puts it, "...whole forest gone, and all of its tree species extinct" (2005:107). EI was once a "diverse subtropical forest of tall trees and woody bushes" including among its native species perhaps the largest palm in the world, even larger than the now current largest palm, the Chilean palm. These palms measured about seven feet in circumference. EI was home to at least six native land birds, including heron, two species of parrot, and a barn owl. It was once the richest breeding ground in Polynesia and perhaps all of the Pacific.

Once Polynesians arrived on this remotest of the world’s islands from western Polynesia (most likely from Mangareva), deforestation began, apparently reaching its peak around 1400 AD. This total deforestation was due to various factors, not the least of which was to have wood for heating (EI is subtropical and drops to around 50° F in winter), rope-making (for pulling the huge moai), and canoe-building for transoceanic voyages. EI had had a strong civilization divided into territories ruled by chiefs who erected larger and larger moai, representing high-ranking ancestors, to assert their egoistic sense of power and dominance. There were 887 moai carved, averaging 12 tons each, often pulled for a distance of up to nine miles to be erected on an ahu. The largest moai built was 32 feet tall and weighed a mere 75 tons. (This apparently occurred just before deforestation reached its peak.) EI’s huge statues, by the way, although often touted as mysterious or even the products of "alien contact," had provenance in native Polynesia, as large statues were also found on Mangareva, the supposed origin of Easter Islanders, and large stone monuments were also constructed on Tonga, as Polynesians eventually sailed their way to all corners of the Pacific.

The irony of what EI was and what it soon became is exemplified by this cruel metaphor: after the construction of hundreds of massive multi-ton statues, there was a proliferation of little statues called moai kavakava "depicting starving people with hollow cheeks and protruding ribs. Captain Cook in 1774 described the islanders as ‘small, lean, timid, and miserable’" (Diamond 2005:109). The population declined by about 70% between 1400-1600, partly because the islanders turned to cannibalism for survival. Diamond states, "Oral traditions of the islanders are obsessed with cannibalism; the most inflammatory taunt that could be snarled at an enemy was ‘The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth’" (2005:109).

I was frankly shocked by the details of Diamond’s investigation into EI’s ecological and sociocultural history. It is rather easy to equate EI’s downfall with what is happening now on a global scale, and Diamond makes this point loud and clear. If you’re curious to learn more, I highly recommend this book.


David Marjanović said...

Off-topic: This site features the following:

Myzocallis kahawaluokalani Kirkaldy (aphid) The Hawaiian name supposedly means, "you fish on your side of the lagoon and I'll fish on the other, and no one will fish in the middle."

Well, does it? It's a bit short for that, isn't it? Inquiring minds want to know! :-)

Dave said...

I don't know where that "translation" came from, but you're right, it's too short for that. I did some checking in the dictionary and came up with the following rendition for kaha-walu-o-ka-lani:

kaha can mean place, cut or scratch, type of tapa, swoop, plunder or cheat, stage of foetus in which limbs develop. (Gotta love Hawaiian!)

walu can mean the number eight, claw or scratch, or a type of fish called oilfish (Revettus pretiosus) caught in deep water, is large and much prized for eating and used as a cathartic.

o ka lani = heavenly or royal

Thus, I think kaha in this case likely = place, walu (especially in the context of your translation) probably in this case = the type of fish. So my best educated guess would be:

"Place of [catching] the heavenly (or royal) oilfish."

Aloha. : )

David Marjanović said...

Wow. Thanks.