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Once Upon a Time there was Earth…

by Ali Baba
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A friend recently lent me a copy of the book, A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. Based on the Massey Lectures delivered by him in 2004, it is a book one should certainly read if one wonders what happened to ancient civilizations that produced seemingly amazing feats of engineering like the pyramids of Egypt, the fabulous treasures of the Incas, and the complex cities of the Mayans. Or if one is simply curious –  ‘Where are we going?’ image for e zine

One of the case studies he describes is the mystery of the massive stone figures dotting the landscape of a tiny isolated island in the South Pacific Ocean, literally in the middle of nowhere. The nearest landmass is 3758 km away, Lima, the capital of Peru. Easter Island, it would seem, was a laboratory where the model of development that the consumer society is embarked upon today has already been tested. It was sighted by Dutch sailors on Easter Day in 1722 and presumed to be a barren island with little vegetation and no trees. The island was estimated to have a population of  just a few thousand but had a large number of tall and massive stone figures, some as tall as 30 feet, standing like sentinels along the coastline, with their backs to the sea. It must have been an impressive sight to the Dutch sailors, as they described the statues being as tall as the tallest houses in Amsterdam of that time. A visit by Captain Cook in 1774 found not many inhabitants left, little fresh water, and many of the massive stone statues fallen.  A catastrophic change seemed to have happened in just five decades. Later visitors were puzzled by the presence of these massive figures on a barren island with scarcely enough people or resources to support such a huge undertaking. Two centuries later, archaeologists have put together the history of civilization on Easter Island from the remains of bones, seeds and pollen left behind on the shores and lake beds.

Visitors were puzzled by the presence of these massive figures on a barren island with scarcely enough people or resources to support such a huge undertaking

It seems that Easter Island, or Rapa Nui (the native name for it), was probably settled in the fifth century CE by visitors from Marquesas, about 4000 km to the northwest. They arrived in catamarans with stores of the common Polynesian crops – sugarcane, bananas, sweet potatoes, mulberry – and animals – dogs, chickens, and edible rats. The island provided nesting for seabirds. Pollen remains showed that the island at one time had rich volcanic soil and had a cover of thick woods of Chilean Wine Palm that grows to the size of an oak. It must have seemed like Eden to the new arrivals. They thrived and the population rose to more than ten thousand and to support such a large population on a land size of just 166 square km trees were cut down to clear land for cultivation.


(For comparison, the island city of Mumbai is less than half this area). In the meanwhile, a tribal society developed with clans that probably worshipped their ancestors by carving massive stone heads and torsos, moai, that were placed on stone platforms along the shore. As demands on the diminishing resources increased, clan rivalries appeared and the size of the stone images grew larger putting even more pressure on the depleting timbre and fibre for rope, making it difficult to transport the moai from the volcanic slopes to the shore. There are about a thousand such statues, probably one for each family at the height of the Rapa Nui civilization. Signs of tree pollen in the annual layers of crater lakes disappear by about 1400 CE. The rats brought in by the visitors would have eaten the seedlings and saplings, causing the extinction of any hope for re-forestation after the last tree was chopped down. Easter Island is a volcanic island and standing on edge of the volcanic crater one can get a panoramic view of the island. The shocking realization is that as the last tree was being felled, the people who were bringing it down could not have missed that it was the last tree standing, but that did not stop them.

With all trees gone, rakan, the native word for wood acquired a special meaning. The clans probably fought battles to get control of the remaining logs. Without wood to leverage the stone blocks, there was no means left to move the moai to the shore, so they remained near the volcanic tuff cliffs from which they were chiseled. Since they could not now be transported, there was also no need to restrict their size and some of the largest moai are the later ones and are more than 65 feet long, weigh more than 200 tons and lie on their sides.


Photo © 2009 Mary Madigan, Flickr. Https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0

These massive statues rival the largest stone carvings of the Incas and Egyptians. Wright says ‘the people had been seduced by a kind of progress that becomes a mania, an ideological pathology’. By the eighteenth century, when the Europeans first landed, the population had been decimated, with only one or two living persons for every statue on the island. There was no wood or palm leaves to build homes or provide shade, so the survivors were living in caves, fiercely guarding their paltry possessions from each other. Their crafts were made from scraps of driftwood, limiting their options for fishing to shallow waters, and certainly ending all hopes of escape from the island. In just a thousand years, Paradise had been transformed into Hell, by the actions of man.

Like the Rapa Nui, we too have destroyed statues and monuments out of sheer hatred and frustration, in Afghanistan and in our own country.

What lesson does Easter Island hold for us? Are the massive stone statues, moai, the gods of the Rapa Nui sending us a message? Sustainable development may sound like a cliché, but what are the consequences of ignoring the signs? Where are we going? Hope we are not taking the path that the Easter Islanders took. So we must wonder when we hear talk of building statues in the middle of the ocean and on a riverbed. Statues to rival the Statue of Liberty, in keeping with our ambitions to be a superpower. Like the Rapa Nui who fought battles for wood, the present superpowers have fought wars for control of oil and gas, the fastest depleting natural resources on our planet, Earth. Like the Rapa Nui, we too have destroyed statues and monuments out of sheer hatred and frustration, in Afghanistan and in our own country. Are we letting ourselves become victims of this ‘ideological pathology’? Will the title of this piece become our epitaph.

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