Easter Island moai statues in a deforested island

Easter Island deforestation: Are we causing our own doom?

By Marcus Edensky

Palm tree jungle
Easter Island jungles before deforestation were similar to those of Hawai’i when first settled a thousand years ago.

The most remote location in the world is a tiny island called Rapa Nui, known to many as Easter Island. Due to its small size, Rapa Nui has a particularly fragile eco system. Centuries ago, huge statues in the hundreds were carved and raised by stone age tribes. The obsession of building and transporting statues caused total deforestation. What can we learn from this?

When I was guiding a couple of learned tourists the other day, I talked about how the ancient Easter Island people cut down all of their own trees. The man said: “That’s so stupid. How could they not understand that their forests were disappearing?”. It’s a good and valid question.

Easter Island covered in palm tree forest jungle
Easter Island was covered in millions of palm trees a thousand years ago. Drawing: Andreas Mieth.
Man hugging last Easter Island palm tree in movie Rapa Nui
There might have been a great fight when the last palm tree was cut down, completing deforestation, as depicted in the 1994 movie Rapa Nui.

Easter Island was settled some thousand years ago. It was then a virgin land with a jungle of millions and millions of palm trees. A unique culture and society was developed. The island was split up to approximately ten tribes, each ruled by their own chieftain. The chieftains had mana – supernatural power, used to forge luck and fortune for their tribe. When a chieftain died, the tribe let carve a tomb stone statue, representing their deceased leader. The spirit and mana of the chieftain was contained within the statue, allowing him to forever be watching over his descendents. They called the statue moai – “so that he may exist”.

Moai statues of Ahu Tongariki.
Mighty statues were raised on tombs of chieftains to preserve their spirit.

As tribes were convinced that building moai statues was the key to success in all aspects of life, this became increasingly important. All spare resources were spent on producing statues. As the moais increased in size and number, with weights up to 80 tons and more. The island’s tree population took a big toll, as wood was used to transport the moai statues. This eventually lead to total deforestation of Easter Island, putting an end to a tradition of statue building that had lasted for centuries.

Moai infographic drawing statues size compared to man
The moai statues increased dramatically in size over the centuries.
Palm planting pit Easter Island
Palm planting pit recently discovered by german archaeologists Burkhard Vogt and Anette Kühlem. © Burkhard Vogt

So, did no one see this end coming? In fact, there was a small group of people that did plant trees. I’m sure they said to others: “Do you not understand that we are about to run out of trees? Once we do, there is no going back!”. But powerful men wanted statues, so deforestation went on. Globally in the world today, the tree population is decreasing. There are those who try to warn us about these things, but many don’t take them seriously, and don’t listen to them. Meanwhile, as the world demands products made from trees, forests are cut down. Money is a powerful force. Who doesn’t want paper to write on? In the end, it seems we are making exactly the same mistakes as the ancient Easter Island people did. This was my answer to the wondering tourist.

If global deforestation continues, the world will look very differently in a hundred years.
If global deforestation continues, the world will look very differently in a hundred years. Projection by WWF.

It is said that we can foresee the future by looking at the past. Are we able to learn from history’s lessons though? Or are we doomed to repeat other people’s mistakes over and over again? As it seems, it’s part of our imperfect nature to not see further than our own noses, and to blindly strive forwards without thinking of future consequences. Knowing and understanding are a whole world apart. Every day we take choices, and every single one of these decide what our future will look like. In the end, our destiny is in our own hands, and our future depends on no one else but us.

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