Easter Island’s Collapse

According to radiocarbon dating, Polynesians settled Easter Island, located in a remote part of the Southeast Pacific Ocean, around 900 CE. The society was stratified into various factions of chiefs and commoners, splitting the island into multiple territories designated by giant stone statues termed moai, 113 of which stand today. The most striking story of Easter Island, however, is its collapse. Easter Island is one of the most extreme examples of deforestation in the world: the entire forest is gone and all tree species extinct. Evidence suggests forest harvesting started around 900 and peaked in 1400. By the time Easter Island was “discovered” by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Day (5 April) in 1722 it was completely deforested. What followed was a catastrophe of untold proportions: without trees the ecosystem collapsed; without ecosystem functions, food and fresh water quickly diminished; without trees, escape boats were not built; since escape was impossible resource infighting occurred, until only a fraction of the population remained. Although the island’s unique ecology made it more susceptible to deforestation, the story still draws an unsettling parallel to contemporary global ecological destruction.

Contributed by Gregory Hitch
Course: Modern Global Environmental History
Instructor: Dr. Wilko Graf von Hardenberg
University of Wisconsin–Madison, US

Further Readings: 
  • Arnold, Caroline. Easter Island: Giant Stone Statues Tell of a Rich and Tragic Past. New York: Clarion Books, 2000.
  • Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2005.
  • Loret, John, and John T. Tanacredi, eds. Easter Island: Scientific Exploration into the World’s Environmental Problems in Microcosm. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2003.
  • McNeill, John R., and Verena Winiwarter, eds. Soils and Societies: Perspectives from Environmental History. Cambridge: The White Horse Press, 2010.