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Rapa Nui: The Earth’s Canary?

by Sandra Scott

Rapa Nui—also known as Easter Island—is an example of what can happen when the environment is not protected. Legend has it that over a thousand years ago a Polyneasian King named Hotu Matu’a and 100 settlers crossed the ocean to a place he called “The Naval of the World.” At that time, Rapa Nui was covered with trees and all was well for generations. However, by the time the first Europeans arrived in 1722, life had deteriorated because of the interplay of deforestation, overpopulation and warfare.

Credit: Sandra Scott

Credit: Sandra Scott

The entire island, which is only 22 miles long and 6 miles wide, is ringed with ahu (altars) topped with giant monolithic statues called moai. Building the moai was a form of ancestor worship that took great communal effort. There are nearly 1, 000 moai scattered around the small island, making the whole island a museum.

The most impressive group of the famous statues is at Tongariki, where 15 moai have been restored to their upright position, including one of the tallest, which is over 30 feet. One of the most intriguing sites on the island is a quarry on the side of Volcan Rano Raraku. Nearly 400 heads appear to be sprouting out of the ground—these are completed moai waiting for centuries to be transported to altars. It is as if one day the order came to stop work and everyone just walked way. Deforestation on the island eventually lead to soil erosion down the hillside, burying the statue’s bodies underground.

Credit: Sandra Scott

Credit: Sandra Scott

Researchers believe that the Rapa Nui people continued to carve larger and larger moai, possibly in an attempt to outdo those made by rival island groups—an early version of “keeping up with the Jones.” The most widely accepted theory is that the growth in population along with huge construction efforts supported huge amounts of lumber and fuel accelerated the deforestation of the island. The loss of resources led to bloody wars over food and power. During war time, construction of the moai ceased and those already standing were knocked over. Only a few thousand people lived on the island when Europeans arrived, and slave raids in the 1860s reduced the population to just over 100 inhabitants.

Credit: Sandra Scott

Credit: Sandra Scott

Researchers who study Rapa Nui see the rise and fall of a civilization. Is this small island a microcosm of our global civilization? What will happen as we continue to destroy the environment and need to fight to control our diminishing resources?

 

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