Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rethinking Easter Island's Catastrophe

University of Hawaii | Despite repeated claims, Rapa Nui does not appear to represent a case of ‘‘ecocide.’’ The documented population collapse for Rapa Nui occurred as a consequence of European contacts, with Old World diseases and slave-trading (Peiser, 2005; Rainbird, 2002). As VanTilburg (1994, p. 164, emphasis added) noted, the scary parables and metaphors for disaster represent ‘‘a projection of Western values which emphasizes the self-destruction of the Rapa Nui culture over the actual, near-annihilation of it by contact with the West.’’ Indeed, early ethnographer Alfred Metraux described the historic genocide as ‘‘one of the most hideous atrocities committed by white men in the South Seas’’ and as ‘‘the catastrophe that wiped out Easter Island’s civilization’’ (Metraux, 1957, p. 38). Today the idea of ‘‘ecocide’’ enjoys popular acceptance, but an actual genocide decimated the native Rapa Nui population and its culture (Peiser, 2005; Rainbird, 2002). Unfortunately, the victims of cultural and physical extermination have been turned into the perpetrators of their own demise.

The model of ‘‘ecocide’’ was constructed in part on the foundations of faith in a long chronology, speculation about prehistoric population size, and a remarkable, but still somewhat coarse-grained palaeo-environmental record for the island. Recent field research, including comparative case studies in places such as the Hawaiian Islands, have changed some perspectives and allowed us to raise questions about Rapa Nui’s historical ecology. In this review I have examined archaeological, palaeo-environmental, and contemporary ecological evidence to suggest that the Pacific rat may have played a major role in Rapa Nui’s ecological catastrophe. The fact that rats alone are capable of widespread forest destruction compels us to evaluate their contribution to the transformation of Rapa Nui, as well as in other island ecosystems. While I argue that the role of rats has often been underestimated, direct human actions of felling and use of fire likely have played a significant role as well. Additional research will be essential to disentangle the contributing factors. The environmental catastrophe of Rapa Nui is likely a complex history, one that has been masked by speculations about the intentions of people cutting down the last tree. Indeed, the ‘‘last tree’’ may simply have died. Rats may have simply eaten the last seeds. Perhaps the lessons of Rapa Nui tell of the effects of invasive species, invasional meltdowns, and the synergy of effects that ensue as people and their portmanteau biota reach evolutionary isolates in the remote islands of the Pacific.