It was a rat that caused the sudden collapse of Easter Island's civilization
By Charles C. Mann
Books and articles by the hundred have pointed to Rapa Nui as the inevitable result of uncontrolled population growth, squandered resources and human fecklessness. "The person who felled the last tree could see it was the last tree," wrote Paul G. Bahn and John Flenley in "Easter Island, Earth Island" (1992). "But he (or she) still felled it." "The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious," Mr. Diamond proclaimed. "The clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources," he said, Rapa Nui epitomizes "ecocide," presenting a stark image of "what may lie ahead of us in our own future."
No, it doesn't, write archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo in "The Statues That Walked," a fascinating entry in the pop-science genre of Everything You Know Is Wrong.
"Rather than a case of abject failure," the authors argue, "Rapa Nui is an unlikely story of success." The islanders had migrated, perhaps accidentally, to a place with little water and "fundamentally unproductive" soil with "uniformly low" levels of phosphorus, an essential mineral for plant growth. To avoid the wind's dehydrating effects, the newcomers circled their gardens with stone walls known as manavai. Today, the researchers discovered, abandoned manavai occupy about 6.4 square miles, a tenth of the island's total surface.
Since we don't know why these cultures collapsed, his theories were speculative at best. They seemed stereotypical to me: blaming indigenous people for not being smart or sophisticated enough to manage their resources. Like veiled suggestions that these people were uncivilized and savage compared to Westerners.
Now it turns out Diamond may have been completely wrong about Easter Island, the centerpiece of his arguments. Oops! Better luck next time, professor.
For more on Diamond, see Guns, Germs, and Steel and The Myth of Western Superiority.