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?

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.