by The Gondolier
June 3, 2011
The story of Easter Island is one that truly fascinates. An island with a rich and curious history that fires up so many questions for the curious observer.
If Detective Inspector Columbo himself arrived on the island, his first searching question would be, “How come there are nigh on 1,000 grand stone carved statues looking out to sea from the shores of Easter Island? How did they build them? How did they erect them? How did they move them?” Because you see, I don’t see any trees.
No one can say with 100% integrity or confidence what actually happened but spend a moment imagining with me. Imagine at some point in the first half of the second millennium a displaced and reasonably populous people launch their boats westward into the Pacific Ocean from some other distant landmass, be it some other distant island in Polynesia, maybe Hawaii, or maybe Chile or another South American region. And who knows for what reason – maybe they were a vanquished tribe fleeing from war, perhaps hunger, or maybe an adventurous people seeking a new start, a new chapter.
After weeks of hopeless buffeting in the Pacific, close to despair, and thousands of miles from any other land mass, they happen upon their salvation from likely expiry – in the form of the steep and volcanic slopes of the tiny speck in the ocean – Easter Island (as named by subsequent conquistadors), thousands of miles from its nearest neighbour. An island teeming in rich vegetation and densely populated with forest, now becomes host to the fascinating genesis of a new country, a new culture. It’s the dream opportunity. Start a society, start afresh. The CTRL/ALT/DEL for a new civilisation.
As the early, newly planted indigenous population begins to grow and flourish, a social fabric and a hierarchy develops. A class system is born, headed no doubt by the first arriving alpha male. Deities and gods emerge – every civilization needs an organized religion. A social order and stability needs to be maintained. Somehow it is decided that the way to honour the deities is via the construction of icons of worship. Epic statues carved from the slightly more yielding rock obtained from the dormant volcano in the middle of the island. And so it starts.
How do I create the handle of an implement to carve into the stone? Wood. So I cut down a tree.
How do I transport the carving the 15 miles from the centre of the island to its final resting pedestal at the shore? I fashion a form of transporter by laying a ‘raft’ of tree trunks perpendicularly on top of two more tree trunks to roll the statue to the shore.
So I cut down lots of trees.
How do I erect the statue onto its pedestal and add the finishing touches? I use more wood to build scaffolding.
So I cut down more trees.
So now we have an island where, aside from the chores of daily fending and living, the main order of business is worshipping deities and building increasingly elaborate statues to honour them.
And then the proverbial really hits the fan when there’s a split in the camp. If you have read William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’, or indeed if you have been on holiday for an extended period with a group of friends, you will know there is always a split in the camp.
As the island population grows, and as human nature decrees, differences emerge, and splinter groups form. So a rival clan sets up on the other side of the island. And then another, and then another. And instead of waging wars or anything primal like that, what happens is that each community attempts to outdo one another by building bigger, more epic, more grandiose statues.
So yet more trees get chopped down.
So what we have is a statue bubble of majestic proportions. And population continues to grow, and so more clans develop in different parts of the island. Soon more statues are installed on all corners of the island, until over one thousand are carved. For decades the competition to build the biggest and best goes on so that these extraordinary and epic statues form an almost unbroken line along the coast of Easter Island.
And a culture reaches its zenith.
And then something goes horribly wrong. Where are all the trees? There are almost none left. As they become scarcer and scarcer, the soil begins to erode and the topsoil washes into the sea. Crops begin to fail. But the fierce competition continues. With failing crops, the clans all begin to turn on one another.
Fast forward a few more years and the island is in a shambles. An ecosystem gone askew, a population decimated by starvation and a desperate war for survival. No wood left on the island to build escape boats. I often imagine – there must have been an individual who chopped down the last tree. What was he thinking? Eventually only a few survivors of the conflict, perhaps numbering as low as a few hundred from a once golden age of four or five thousand, left to pick up the pieces of their culture. And only one thing was left behind.
A thousand epic statues. A jewel of an island floating in an endless sea.
A seemingly never-ending supply of raw materials. Technological advances. Population growth. Depletion of resources. War. Collapse.