Rethinking Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” of Easter Island

Easter Island or Rapa Nui is famous for moai, giant monumental statues, which were built approx. 800 years ago by early inhabitants of the island. Many debate on the cultural significance of these monuments. Many also debate how a Stone Age culture managed not only carve but transport these 92 ton statues onto ahu platforms.

Henrykkcheung/Flickr

Some of these debates have been answered by Carl Lipo of Binghamton University and his colleague, Terry Hunt of the University of Arizona. These two are arguably the leaders behind what we currently understand of Rapa Nui. For example, they showed us in 2012 on the cover piece of the National Geographic that you could transport a 10-foot, 5-ton moai a few hundred yards with just 18 people and three strong ropes by employing a rocking motion. Which gave us an idea how this was done, but didn’t fully address how the society put 13-ton hats or pukao on the moai, which was answered in 2018. Last year, PLoS One, Lipo and his team concluded that the significance of the statues’ locations were based on the availability of fresh water sources.

Easter Island—known as Rapa Nui by its Indigenous people—features many human-like statues distributed across the isle as shown above. Eric Gaba and Bamse/Wikimedia Commons

Another curiosity is what happened to the Easter Island’s Polynesian inhabitants. It is believed that these Polynesians arrived around 1200 AD. They created a thriving and industrious culture, which lead to to land clearing for cultivation. The introduction of the Polynesian rat further led the deforestation. This was outlined by Jared Diamond’s book in 2005 called Collapse who postulated the culture was on the decline by the 1600’s.

By 1722, the island’s population was estimated to be 2,000–3,000. Exposure to European diseases, Peruvian slave raiding expeditions in the 1860s, and emigration further depleted the population, reducing it to 111 native inhabitants in 1877. In a new paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Lipo and his colleagues establish a less catastrophic model.

Integrating the order and position of the island’s moai and coordinating it to ethnohistoric stories they were able to triangulate construction rates. In other words they were able to figure out the rate at which the moai were raised and when it likely ended. Rapa Nui continued to thrive well after 1600. The authors suggest this warrants a rethinking of the popular narrative that the island was destitute when Europeans arrived in 1722.

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