Easter Island deforestation

Most people view Easter Island as a simple tourist destination where some really gigantic stone heads can be seen. True, these monuments are quite impressive and inspire many ideas. But only with the understanding of the history behind them can one truly appreciate the valuable lessons of ecological balance and human nature.

It seems hard to imagine that once upon a time the Easter Island was actually covered with trees, wildlife flourished and the inhabitants lived in harmony with nature. The marvelous stone heads are basically all that is left of the native society. The island is a perfect example of the deforestation consequences on a small scale. Without the forests, the quality of life dramatically diminishes creating disorder in the society.

To fully comprehend this important issue let's start at the very beginning. In the Easter Sunday of 1722, the famous Dutch Admiral Jacobs Roggeveen stumbled upon a new island in the Pacific Ocean. Due to the date of discovery, he appropriately named it Easter Island. He was surprised when he saw small boats of the local people setting off to greet his ship, but the whole crew was astonished when they saw the massive stone heads. They could not understand how the natives, who didn't have any machinery or even a strong rope, succeeded in erecting statues that measure ten meters in height and width.

The Easter Island originally had a strong class system, with a high chief commanding nine clans and their respective chiefs. The high chief was the eldest descendent through firstborn lines of the island's legendary founder, Hotu Matu'a. The large stone statues, for which Easter Island is famous, are called moai. Over 800 statues were carved from 1100–1680 for religious purposes, and without a doubt the construction contributed to environmental degradation of the island.

Deforestation destroys the society
The climate of ancient times included a sub-tropical forest complete with the tall Easter Island palm. A large extinct palm was used for building homes, canoes and in the construction of statues. It probably took around 100 years for the palm to reach adult height. Canoes were vital for fishing and the vegetation of the island enabled the natives to make rope. Pollen analysis shows that the island was formerly forested with a large number of trees, shrubs, ferns and grasses.

The civilization was at its greatest level from 1200 to 1500 AD when the construction of statues peaked. At the same time the tree population of the island declined rapidly. Around 1400 the Easter Island palm became extinct due to overharvesting. With the palm and other trees virtually gone, there was considerably less rainfall. Another important issue which led to deforestation was rats, which ate the palm seeds and destroyed the natural forest capability of reproduction.

In the years after the disappearance of the palm the islanders had no longer the palm wood needed for canoes, so the food supply normally gathered from sea disappeared. The consumption of birds increased to the extent of extinction for entire species. With the loss of the forest, streams and drinking water supplies dried up.

Fires became a luxury since there was no wood on the island and grasses had to be used for fuel. Without a material to build rope to move the stone statues they were abandoned. Starvation took place on the Easter Island while the social order slowly disappeared. The situation became chaotic and bitter fighting among the population occurred.

Next: Easter Island society change