Visiting Rapa Nui---the name preferred by residents even though it's a 19th Century designation---headed my bucket list, especially after studying Jared Diamond's blockbuster "Collapse."
Touching down at Mataveri International Airport in a wide-body jet was not even possible until 1987, when NASA lengthened the runway to 10,885 feet. The spur, however, was not to boost tourism but rather the need for an emergency-landing site for the Space Shuttle.
My first impression of Easter Island? Tiny, barren and uber-remote.
With square mileage comparable to Thousand Oaks, Rapa Nui's population of 6,000 annually plays host to 80,000 tourists and their sizable (80 percent) contribution to the economy.
The most photographed site is Ahu Tongariki, where 15 moai (iconic giant statues) stand guard and tour guides spin out their personal version of the Hotu Matu'a's myth.
The "Great Parent" and his followers, legend has it, sailed---against the wind---thousands of miles to Te Pito Te Henua ("Land’s End"). Conveying cultivated plants and domesticated animals in double-hulled canoes, they arrived, according to carbon-dated artifacts, around 700 CE.
Hotu Matu'a would eventually subdivide the island among a dozen clans. Not only would his "map" serve for 57 generations but its return as a replacement for Chilean rule is also the fervent hope of independence activists seeking a favorable judgment at The Hague.
If you read "Collapse," you learned that Easter Island is the "clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources."
According to Diamond, once slash-and-burn tree clearing commenced, it didn't stop until the entire island, once as lush with tropical vegetation as Kauai, was completely denuded. Palms were also harvested to transport moai.
Diamond labeled such self-destructive behavior "ecocide" and warned that Easter Island's fate might, one day, be our own.
No less an authority than the History Channel reports that the shortsighted Rapa Nui, in a competitive frenzy to produce increasingly gargantuan statues and feed an exploding workforce, were unmindful they might consume every tree on the island.
Subsequently the ferocious winds and tropical storms that still plague the island eroded the topsoil so the Rapa Nui couldn't farm. Without wood for boats, they couldn't fish. The resulting famine, the History Channel argues, led to civil war and even cannibalism.
Of course, if you read Eric von Danniken's "Return to the Stars," you also learned that extra-terrestrials (supposedly stranded on Easter Island) "extracted a [number of colossal statues] from the volcanic stone…which they set up on stone pedestals along the coast so they were visible from afar."
Rubbish. Perhaps you need to see for yourself. Visit Rano Raraku, the volcanic crater quarry where dozens of uncompleted statues remain or hike down to one of the 1,450 subterranean manavani (walled enclosures) that protect plants from the weather or marvel at tales of athletic prowess by Bird Man competitors. You can't help but be impressed by Rapa Nui ingenuity, creativity and resilience.
These were not crazy people who allowed an obsession with ancestor worship to destroy their environment. The evidence of their elaborate system of dams, reservoirs and channels to manage water on an essentially arid island or lithic forges that split rocks for use in construction and/or leaching nutrients into the soil contradicts such nonsense.
In their book, "The Statues that Walked," Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo conclude, "Rather than a case of abject failure," what happened to the people on Easter Island "is an unlikely story of success."
Contrary to Diamond’s hypothesis, researchers---from fossil hunters to paleobotanists---have discovered no scientific evidence that the Polynesian settlers burned trees.
The trees did die--- but rather than holding human beings culpable, Hunt and Lipo blame the Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans) that stowed away aboard Hotu Matu'a's catamarans.
Once the ravenous rodents hopped out on Easter Island---without predators yet with delectable palm sprouts/roots/seeds to munch on---they went forth and multiplied. Remember a rat population can double in 47 days.
The indigenous people might have cleared out some of the palm trees but the rats were responsible for preventing new growth.
Yet the plucky Rapa Nui played their own riff on "when life hands you lemons…" As J.B. MacKinnon reports in "The Once and Future World," archeologists examining ancient garbage heaps on Rapa Nui found "that 60 percent of the discarded bones came from introduced rats." There's no need to eat one's fellow man when one has an alternative form of protein.
Furthermore, an extensive forensic anthropology study of over 100,000 skeletons cited in Jo Anne Van Tilburg's "Easter Island: Archeology, Ecology and Culture" reveal scant evidence of malnutrition, cannibalism and/or violent (civil war) death.
Diamond's claim of ecocide, while it makes for effective extreme environmentalist scare mongering, just doesn't pass the common sense test---but more next time.