Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Easter Island

As I mentioned on Facebook, I recently read "An Illustrated Short History of Progress" by Ronald Wright (all quotes are from the paperback edition, House of Anansi press 2008). An acquaintance of mine put it into my hand and told me to read it. And I'm so very glad he did. It is an excellent book and really makes one think. In general, he's talking about cultural collapse. And talking about where we are now. Let's face it, every culture collapses - well, he argues that some don't, but I would argue that just because people are still living where a big culture once was doesn't mean it didn't collapse. And ours will at some point, too. But don't worry, it usually happens slowly. And not likely within one lifetime. There's little one person can do to alter the course of history, but I find it quite interesting to look back at it and see what we can learn about ourselves.

In particular, I was struck by the story of Easter Island - a small (64 square-mile plot in the South Pacific Ocean). Now, I'll admit, this is not a post researched by me. I'm summarizing what Wright wrote. So if there are inconsistencies or incorrect details I appologize. Normally I wouldn't rely on one source. But he seems credible and he makes a good argument.

Wright states: "Archaeology is perhaps the best tool we have for looking ahead because it provides a deep reading of the direction and momentum of our course through time: what we are, where we have come from, and therefore where we are most likely to be going. Unlike written history, which is often highly edited, archaeology can uncover the deeds we have forgotten, or have chosen to forget" (p.74). So ... I like him. He doesn't mention that archaeology has it's own biases - and it really does. Each researcher comes to archaeology with their own world view. But it tends toward being detailed in ways that history does not. It fills in gaps that history can miss.

On Easter day in 1722, Easter Island (obviously named) was "discovered" by a Dutch fleet in the South Seas - far to the west of Chile and south of the Tropic of Capricorn. The island was barren, treeless and highly eroded. But huge stone images had been erected on the island. It was a mystery how these stone statues had been erected without any timber. Captain Cook noted of the Island: "no wood for fuel; nor any fresh water worth taking on board". "He described the islanders' tiny canoes, made from scraps of driftwood stitched together like shoe leather, as the worst in the Pacific. Nature, he concluded, had 'been exceedingly sparing of her favours to this spot'" (p.78).

The mystery of the giant statues was later answered when the physical past of the island had been discovered. The Island was once lush with greenery and wildlife. Large palms had grown there and volcanic soil had supported a strong ecosystem. It was, like many south pacific islands, a paradise at one time. It stood in the ocean all alone and beautiful until the fifth century when migrants arrived in large catamarans. They brought with them crops and domesticated animals. And they proceeded to settle and make a life on the island. Within 500-600 years, they had created a society of some 10,000 people.

These people lived in good houses built on stone footings and had cleared the best land for crops. The had split into clans and ranks of nobles, priests, and commoners. They may have had a chief or king. "Like Polynesians on some other islands, each clan began to honour its ancestry with impressive stone images ... As time went on, the statue cult became increasingly rivalrous and extravagant ... Each generation of images grew bigger than the last, demanding more timber rope, and manpower for hauling to the ahu, or alters. Trees were cut faster than they could grow, a problem worsened by the settlers' rats, who at the seeds and sapplings. By A.D. 1400, no more tree pollen is found in the soils in the crater lakes: the woods had been utterly destroyed ..." (p.79-80).

Wright ponders why, when they lived on such a small island, which could be seen in its totality from one high spot on the island, some steps were not taken to stop the destruction of the trees and the island. If they could see it ... if it was obvious ... why didn't they stop? Wouldn't they have saved the last few trees?

They didn't. They cut the last tree. And for a while used the old timbers for their purposes. But after a generation or so, even the old good timbers were gone. Used to build canoes. And probalby to burn for fuel. Evenutally, even the last canoe was gone - and so was their ability to fish ... or leave the island. They had trapped themselves because they had used up their resources in their entirety. "Wars broke out over ancient plands and worm-eaten bits of jetsam. They ate all their dogs and nearly all the nesting birds, and the unbearable stillness of the place deepened with animal silences. There was nothing left now but the moai, the stone giants who had devoured the land. And still these promised the return of plenty, if only the people would keep faith and honour them with increase. By the end there were more than a thousand moai (statues), one for every ten islanders in their heyday. But the good days were gone - gone with the good earth, which had been carried away on the endless wind and washed by flash floods into the sea. The people had been seduced by a kind of progress that becomes a mania, an 'ideological pathology', as some anthropoloigsts call it. When Europeans arrived in the eighteenth century, the worst was over; they found only one or two living souls per statue, a sorry remnant 'small, lean, timid and miserable', in Cook's words. Now without roof beams, many people were dwelling in caves; their only buildings were stone henhouses where they guarded this last non-human protein from one another day and night. The Europeans heard tales of how the warrior class had taken power, how the island had convulsed with burning villages, gory battles, and cannibal feasts" (p.81-82).

I don't know if Wright meant it this way (actually, I'm quite sure he did), but aren't we standing at the highest point of land, looking out over our world and seeing the overuse of our resources. We aren't down to the last tree, but it's getting close. And aren't the huge corporations, in their giant buildings downtown, looking out over the ocean and asking for more and more with the promise that we will get plenty back from them. It's an obvious analogy, but a powerful one. I don't see cultural collapse as even a bad thing. Cultures come and go. People stay. But the environment is fragile and we are pounding on it. We should notice that we are part of it all and will get pounded right along with it.

... Just saying.

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