The real lesson of Easter Island

Ancient cultures provide societies responsible for devastating climate change with a contemporary me

Ancient cultures have much to teach us. Unfortunately, we still haven’t learned how to look at them with unbiased eyes. Our examination of enigmatic ancient monuments, such as the stone figures on the tiny Easter Island, reveals only the predilections and perversity of our own world-view, rather than the reality of the people who produced them.

I call this the Grafton Elliot Smith effect. The great Australian anatomist believed that any sign of sophistication in the ancient world was the product of the Children of the Sun – that is, the Egyptians. Why? Because sophistication, capability, invention, your basic thought and imagination, were rare attributes. The world belonged to the savage primitive and only a few ever rose above that level. In modern times, by overwhelming general agreement, the few boiled down to white Europeans.

While academia has moved on from Smith, the popular imagination has not. It is much more gratifying and soothing to look at ancient cultures from a supremacist self-image.

The Rapanui, the people who colonised Easter Island (Rapa Nui), are the prototype for this phenomenon. They are seen through the constructed lens of what it is to be primitive. Not only do primitives lack capability and rationality, they also have perverse beliefs and are mired in superstition. What else could one expect these people to do than to destroy their own environment, engage in warfare and cannibalism, and kill themselves off in slavish worship of false gods – whose empty eyes are all that remain?

The story of Rapa Nui is a morality tale of ecological devastation. As promoted by Jared Diamond in his bestseller Collapse, this theory has the inhabitants felling their forests to erect enormous, enigmatic stone statues. Without wood to build boats, they were marooned and unable to fish. Finally, cannibalism sealed their fate, thus providing an ecological lesson for us all.

Not a word of this thesis is true. Research by Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii and Carl Lipo of California State University shows that the people of Rapa Nui did not kill themselves or destroy their environment. What killed their society was rats. The rodents had no predators on the island and its huge palm trees were rat candy. Hunt and Lipo’s analysis, published in Rapa Nui Journal (21 (2): 85-97, 2007), notes the absence of evidence for either organised warfare or cannibalism. Moreover, the trees were not used to build these large statues. Far from being an example of ecological collapse, Rapa Nui provides us with the opposite lesson.

So why do we insist on looking at “primitive cultures” in aggressively negative terms? I think we are attracted to the idea of native people doing themselves in for two main reasons. We find it difficult to face our own colonial history – it is not easy to acknowledge that the arrival of western Europeans wiped out numerous indigenous cultures throughout the Americas and Oceania, and sealed their fates subsequently by missionary activities and the slave trade. It is an ugly history we would rather turn away from.

Yet ancient cultures also provide societies responsible for devastating climate change with a contemporary means of guilt replacement – as Diamond’s book demonstrates. If the impetus to self-destruct can be located far away and long ago, then it is not something shameful in us, the inheritors of gas-guzzling consumer abundance, based as it is on environmental despoiling and squandering. The more we cannot know about the rationality and sophistication that once was Rapa Nui, the less we have to hold ourselves to account for our present deeds of global excess.

Just what would we do without such primitive fairy tales?