Ecocide and the Rapa Nui

The following is a piece on the Rapa Nui and Maya civilizations (the former taking the greatest focus), utilizing Jared Diamond's "Collapse" as the base of investigation. Utilizing multiple sources, I continue my critique of Diamond's anthropological work and shed some light on previously-obscured details that Diamond may have misrepresented.

For the last two weeks I have been exposed to a great deal of information regarding various ancestral groups and how their societies may have collapsed as a result of ecocide and other factors as cited by Diamond. From the Rapa Nui in the Easter Islands, to the Maya in Central America, and the Anasazi in the Southwestern deserts of the United States, culminating with a prelude into the life and history of the Viking society. The Rapa Nui and the Maya drew my attention the most, hence my focus on these two societies in this essay. Instead of using peer-reviewed articles, however, I will be citing a couple of documentaries which I used as complimentary material to the readings in this lesson. What I found, and you will see as well, is that Diamond’s critique of these societies may have been somewhat exaggerated. 

Starting with a short documentary on the Maya civilization, “Who Killed The Maya?” (Cordts, "Who Killed the Maya") was not in too much far from Diamond’s own accounts. The main contributor to the fall of the Mayan civilization seemed to be both internal conflict and overpopulation. However, the documentary gives less credit to climate changes and deforestation, it was clear that the Maya were intelligent enough to manage their environment—hence, it’s not surprising that some of their cities grew to hold a fairly dense population. Epigrapher, Dr. Nikolai Grube firmly believes that it was political conflicts the main driving force behind the collapse of the Mayan society. I agree with both Diamond and Dr. Grube, I believe that it was a combination of internal strife/war, political and religiously fueled conflicts, and the overexertion of their natural resources; not to mention Spanish campaigns for conquest and forced Christian conversion.

Moving now to the the Rapa Nui in the Easter Islands, Diamond seems to portray them as victims of their own actions and depicts their ultimate demise as a result of self-destructive tendencies—civil wars, cannibalism, and even total deforestation; however the documentary “Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World” (Geilinger, "Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World") provides some startling evidence to suggest that while some degree of ecocide was indeed behind the collapse of the islander’s way of living, it was by no means the catalyst of their demise. First, addressing the so-called “civil war”, there are actually no archeological records of there being such a thing, and while their Polynesian ancestry definitely explains their competitive tendencies, it is highly speculated that their competitiveness was not translated into hostilities toward each other. The Rapa Nui were, and their descendants remain, very community-minded individuals. Diamond seems to write about clans breaking other clans’ moai statues by pushing them off their ahu platforms, when evidence suggest that this was not the case. Archeologists and historians in the island, as well as the few Rapa Nui descendants that remain, seem to argue that the moai were actually lowered as a way to keep the ancestors of the islanders from seeing the devastating effects of the plagues, diseases, and devastation to the island caused by European explorers.

Second, there isn’t any archeological proof of cannibalism among the Rapa Nui. While there were reports of cannibalism by some Europeans, it was mostly their way of further demonizing these “savages”, furthermore, rare instances of cannibalism in the Polynesian culture, I know from my anthropological studies, takes shape in the form of funerary cannibalism—meaning eating the deceased, not killing the living to eat them. Diamond writes that it was because the Rapa Nui were starving that they turned to cannibalism, when in fact archeologists and botanists in the island show that the Rapa Nui were very careful about maintaining a balance with their surrounding environment. Furthermore, in 1919, Katherine Routledge, a British ethnographer who performed the first scientific exploration of Easter island writes that such reports are false (Geilinger, "Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World", 2014; Routledge, 1919). The natives adapted quickly to the challenges that they faced—lithic mulching is the prime example. The natives placed volcanic rocks by their crops in order to protect them from winds and erosion, the documentary goes a lot further than that and goes on to show various others forms of agricultural evolution that the Rapa Nui developed in order to grow crops in the island.

The argument of deforestation is also confronted by professors and scientists from various universities around the globe. Particularly Geoarcheologist and Ecosystem researcher, Dr. Andreas Mieth of the University of Kiel in Germany, explains that there was an estimate of 16 million palm trees in the island during the peak of the Rapa Nui society, and while Diamond claims that their “obsession” with moais led to the “total” deforestation of the island, Dr. Mieth calculates that the total amount of palm trees cut down by to erect the current number of moai statues could not have exceeded more than 1.5 million. How was the island completely deforested, as Diamond claims then? Both Diamond and the experts in the documentary seem to agree on the scarcity of protein—sea birds—due to overhunting, as well as the difficulty in catching and harvesting seafood due to the less-than-ideal conditions surrounding the pacific island. The Rapa Nui were very nurturing of their land, they live in a very small island, they can almost see from coast to coast, it is not possible that they would not become conscious of their own effect on their environment. Diamond raises this same argument, however, he continues to state that their own actions led to their ultimate demise. What is even more startling to see is that while Diamond alludes to the use of the island as a sheep-farm by Scotland at some point after its “discovery” by Europeans, yet he fails to mention the devastating effect that Sheep grazing had on the island ecology. Botanists and ecologists in the Easter islands today describe in the documentary that not only was Sheep grazing the fields one of the reasons for the island’s current barren state, but also the introduction of foreign trees to the island by European explorers, such as the soil eroding, moisture-leeching Australian eucalyptus tree.

Unfortunately, the documentary gives us a better insight into what led to the collapse of their society. After Roggeveen found his way to Easter Island on Good Friday 1722, more European explorers found their way through to the island, thus exposing the natives to diseases that were only the beginning of their demise. By the time Captain Cook reached the island in the late 18th century, he found only devastation—why do you think? Diamond also fails to emphasize that when black-birding—that is, Europeans kidnapping Rapa Nui natives and sending them off in slave ships to work in mines in Peru and elsewhere—most of the Rapa Nui taken were the ones with the knowledge necessary for their society to continue. Only the weak and elderly remained, most of which did not remember much or were too feeble minded. Thus, oral history from these natives would have been flawed, and to rely entirely on it without taking ethnographic, archeological, and ecological expert arguments into account, can only lead to inaccuracies. Even then, however, there will be inconsistencies, many scholars who study the Rapa Nui and the ancestral Easter Islands still do not know 100% what happened, and some do still disagree with their studies and conclusions. Once thing is certain, however, the Rapa Nui are ingenious and creative people that adapted to their environment very quickly, and we are lucky to have their culture, however fading, still alive for us to learn from and admire.


Diamond, J. M. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed. New York: Viking.

Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World. Directed by Spike Geilinger. Performed by Jago Cooper. UK: BBC, 2014. Documentary.

Routledge, Katherine. The Mystery of Easter Island. 1919.

Who Killed the Maya. Directed by Dethlev Cordts. UK, 2006. TV Documentary.

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