EASTER ISLAND – This remote speck in the South Pacific is famous for its colossal stone statues, nearly 1,000 of them towering over the landscape like guardians.
Who built them? How did they get there? And who fitted some of them with giant red stone hats weighing up to 12 tons each?
When I was a kid, a huge nonfiction best seller by Erich von Daniken called “Chariots of the Gods” argued that they were evidence that UFOs had visited Earth. Von Daniken, whose nonfiction and fiction books have sold a staggering 63 million copies worldwide, argued that only space aliens could have carved, transported and erected these monuments.
The puzzle arises because when Jacob Roggeveen discovered the island (on Easter Day, 1722, hence the name), it was a wasteland with no trees and a small, starving population. The Polynesian inhabitants had only small and leaky canoes, so it was unclear how they had ever reached the island, let alone built such colossal figures.
“The stone images at first caused us to be struck with astonishment,” Roggeveen wrote, because the land was of such “singular poverty and barrenness.”
Scientists and historians have since solved the mystery. The statues, or moai, were built over hundreds of years by Easter Islanders themselves — a formerly advanced Polynesian society that was prosperous enough to make ever bigger and more ornate statues. One, still being carved in the quarry when it was abandoned in the 1600s, is 70 feet tall and weighs 270 tons.
What destroyed this civilization was apparently deforestation in the 1500s and 1600s. The islanders cut down trees for cremation, for firewood, for canoes, for homes and perhaps for devices to move the statues. Rats and beetles may also have contributed to the deforestation.
Once the trees were gone, there were no more fruit and nuts, and it became impossible to build large canoes to hunt porpoises and to fish for tuna. Hungry villagers also ate up the land birds, such as herons, parrots and owls, until they were gone, too.
Deforestation caused erosion that led crops to fail, and this advanced society disintegrated into civil war. Without oceangoing canoes, it was impossible for inhabitants to flee to other islands, the way their ancestors had arrived centuries before. Groups began attacking one another and destroying one another’s statues, with oral histories even recounting cannibalism.
“The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth,” is one insult dating from this time, transmitted through the generations.
European explorers compounded the suffering in the 18th and 19th centuries by bringing disease and by brutally enslaving many inhabitants, but Easter Island society had already collapsed and the statue-building had already ceased long before the first Europeans showed up. It’s not that Easter Islanders were suicidal or stupid, but that the environment was fragile and they kept up old ways that were unsustainable, triggering a chain of events that could not be reversed.
“Easter’s isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by over-exploiting its own resources,” Jared Diamond wrote in his 2005 book, “Collapse.” “The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious.
“Those are the reasons why people see the collapse of Easter Island society as a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.”
Easter Islanders themselves aren’t thrilled about being reduced to a metaphor. They rightly feel great pride in their earlier history and see the collapse as more complex and uncertain.
“This island is full of mystery,” says Sergio Rapu, an archaeologist and former governor who argues that the deforestation was caused not just by humans but also by other factors, such as beetles arriving on driftwood.
Yet Rapu agrees that there are larger lessons about the consequences of deforestation. “The history of Easter Island is the history of our planet,” he says.
I came to Easter Island while leading a tour for The New York Times Co., and those of us in the group were staggered by the statues — but also by the reminder of the risks when a people damages the environment that sustains it.
That brings us to climate change, to the chemical processes we are now triggering whose outcomes we can’t fully predict. The consequences may be a transformed planet with rising waters and hotter weather, dying coral reefs and more acidic oceans. We fear for the ocean food chain and worry about feedback loops that will irreversibly accelerate this process, yet still we act like Easter Islanders hacking down their trees.
Collectively, our generation on Earth may now be reshaping the geography of our planet for thousands of years to come.
Of course, maybe it’ll be fine. Perhaps the perils of climate change will turn out to be overblown, or perhaps we’ll develop geoengineering solutions to reflect sunlight and cool the planet.
But I can’t help imagining the farmer here on Easter Island who cut down the last palm tree. “More will grow,” he may have said. “It’ll be fine.”
But when the last tree toppled, his people were doomed.
I hope that some day far in the future, tourists don’t swim through Midtown Manhattan and similarly reflect on the hubris and recklessness of early-21st-century Americans.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service