Easter Island's End
By Jared Diamond, in
In just a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and
animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism. Are we
about to follow their lead?
Among the most riveting mysteries of human history are those posed by vanished civilizations.
Everyone who has seen the abandoned buildings of the Khmer, the Maya, or the Anasazi is
immediately moved to ask the same question: Why did the societies that erected those structures
Their vanishing touches us as the disappearance of other animals, even the dinosaurs, never can.
No matter how exotic those lost civilizations seem, their framers were humans like us. Who is to
say we won't succumb to the same fate? Perhaps someday New York's skyscrapers will stand
derelict and overgrown with vegetation, like the temples at Angkor Wat and Tikal.
Among all such vanished civilizations, that of the former Polynesian society on Easter Island
remains unsurpassed in mystery and isolation. The mystery stems especially from the island's
gigantic stone statues and its impoverished landscape, but it is enhanced by our associations with
the specific people involved: Polynesians represent for us the ultimate in exotic romance, the
background for many a child's, and an adult's, vision of paradise. My own interest in Easter was
kindled over 30 years ago when I read Thor Heyerdahl's fabulous accounts of his Kon-Tiki
But my interest has been revived recently by a much more exciting account, one not of heroic
voyages but of painstaking research and analysis. My friend David Steadman, a paleontologist,
has been working with a number of other researchers who are carrying out the first systematic
excavations on Easter intended to identify the animals and plants that once lived there. Their
work is contributing to a new interpretation of the island's history that makes it a tale not only of
wonder but of warning as well.
Easter Island, with an area of only 64 square miles, is the world's most isolated scrap of habitable
land. It lies in the Pacific Ocean more than 2,000 miles west of the nearest continent (South
America), 1,400 miles from even the nearest habitable island (Pitcairn). Its subtropical location
and latitude-at 27 degrees south, it is approximately as far below the equator as Houston is north
of it-help give it a rather mild climate, while its volcanic origins make its soil fertile. In theory,
this combination of blessings should have made Easter a miniature paradise, remote from
problems that beset the rest of the world.
The island derives its name from its "discovery" by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, on
Easter (April 5) in 1722. Roggeveen's first impression was not of a paradise but of a wasteland: