back to article Easter Islanders didn't commit 'ecocide' after all, says archaeologist

Myth-busting archaeologist Carl Lipo has dealt another blow to the idea that indigenous Easter Islanders committed "ecocide" in the 19th Century. The idea, fashionable with Western environmentalists, posits that the Polynesian natives deforested Rapa Nui, thus leading to cultural and economic collapse. Easter Island is denuded …

Incorrect book, and deeper evidence

The Easter Island theory is detailed in "Collapse", not "Guns Germs and Steel".

I don't think Jared Diamond's theory has been proved incorrect. It wasn't just made up - it was based on multiple sources of evidence, especially the pollen record in peat bogs (hard to fake and quite strong evidence). Rats were not introduced by Western ships, but came a lot earlier with Polynesian settlers, and the damage was done over centuries, not in the 19th century.

The Polynesian people had been extraordinarily successful in settling many islands across the breadth of the Pacific, and on arrival Easter Island looked very similar to the others. The climate and soil were not nearly as robust as other locations, but in the pre-Modern era it would have been very hard to establish that. The combination of slow regrowth, high usage and damage from introduced species (rats!) led to the gradual disappearance of Easter Islands forests.

The book also covers interesting parallels with the Norse settlements in Iceland and Greenland. This is similar to Easter Island, where seafarers from more robust lands arrive at islands which have centuries of forest growth looking much like previous islands. High usage of the timber exceeds the regrowth and exposes fragile soil, which erodes, leaving no chance of the forest being sustained. Greenland collapsed and Iceland came close.

Certainly the arrival of Western slavers and disease dealt the final blow to Easter Island, but the archaeological record suggests other significant events prior to that.

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Re: Incorrect book, and deeper evidence

Are you unaware that all Orlowski’s works are opinion pieces?

The rather inflammatory sub-heading indicates his opinion on this subject I think.

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Re: Incorrect book, and deeper evidence

The prevailing view has been that the Rapa Nuians cut down all the trees for levers to move their giant stone heads, a sort of cultural madness. If that's not true then it means yet another false narrative applied to an indigenous people by smug and ignorant outsiders. But hey, at least this time it was in a good cause!

Specifically, it enabled certain kinds of people to shake their fingers in certain other people's faces.

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Re: Incorrect book, and deeper evidence

Slip of the brain concerning book, now corrected, Bumpy Cat.

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Re: Incorrect book, and deeper evidence

@Big John

Well, that's a lot of resource usage to make and move the statues regardless, so maybe it is possible to say "Not following this cultural practice may have made the society more sustainable".

Interestingly, the parallels I mentioned above, with the Norse in Greenland, also apply. The Norse also followed cultural practices which detracted from their sustainability - in their case, looking down on fishing (seriously, almost no fish bones in middens in the Greenland settlements) and their obsession with dairy cattle as a measure of wealth. Dairy cattle require huge amounts of hay, and wood is needed for fires to clean dairy implements.

Jared Diamond highlights this, but no-one is accusing him of racism against Norwegians. Maybe people need to actually read the book. In fact, several of his *success* cases are indigenous people, especially the Polynesians in Fiji and Tikopia, and the people of New Guinea. It's hard to wave the SJW stick at Jared Diamond and say "He's racist against the Polynesians of Easter Island but not the Polynesians of Tikopia!"

I attended one of his talks in London, and there were people protesting against him because ... actually I'm still not clear why they were protesting. Something about he wasn't treating New Guineans with respect, despite living and studying there for years and praising their society as one that has managed the same area of land sustainably for several thousand years.

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Trollface

Re: Incorrect book, and deeper evidence

My first thought on seeing the headline was "Lewis is back!"

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Re: Incorrect book, and deeper evidence

Who said anything about race? This is a cultural issue, not a racial one.

> "Well, that's a lot of resource usage to make and move the statues regardless..."

Some, yes, but how much? It was a lot of calories burned, but over many many years.

As for the trees, those that they felled and shaped were huge tools that cost a lot to make, so they would make sure to stack said tools in a dry shed and otherwise preserve them when not in use. I can't imagine they were moving more than one or two heads at a time, so how many trees could it take? Maybe they were breaking levers all the time? I doubt it. All they would have to do is double them up for strength.

I always did think the 'head moving' explanation was a reach, but I don't have degrees in Ornithology and Medicine so I made no attempt to assert myself, alas...

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Re: Incorrect book, and deeper evidence

Jared Diamond is an extremely sloppy "scientist". He first posits a big theory guaranteed to sell a lot of books, and then collects facts, pseudo-facts, and rumours to support it.

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Re: Incorrect book, and deeper evidence

I have the Diamond book at my bedside, along with a Dawkins or two. I read the former for unscientific annoyance-by-assertion, and the latter for properly-balanced wholly-scientific nightmares. Thanks, guys!

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Re: Incorrect book, and deeper evidence

"a lot of resource usage to make and move the statues"

If you read the rebuttal which the authors wrote to counter Diamond's attempt at discrediting them, they assert that the statues may not, in fact, have been moved horizontally over tree/palm trunks. They have apparently done experiments to determine the feasibilty of moving them vertically, and found to their surprise that it is indeed possible and can be achieved with a relatively small group of individuals.

(and also gives rise to the tales of Easter Island statues 'walking')

http://www.marklynas.org/2011/10/the-easter-island-ecocide-never-happened-response-to-jared-diamond/

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so......how DID the island get deforested?

Answer that and I might believe.

I don't see rats causing deforestation

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- Rats eating the seeds of trees, where the seeds are not adapted to it.

- Heavy timber usage.

- Mild-to-cool climate meaning slow tree growth.

- Shallow and fragile volcanic soil, which erodes easily.

It's been a while since I read the book, so I don't remember all the factors, but the above list is a start.

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That rats eat the seeds and/or seedlings of the native trees has been known for some time. Nature can be surprising sometimes.

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Rats...

Rats are omnivorous and, like all rodents, they eat seeds and fruit. They reproduce like mad in suitable conditions. Given enough of them, they'll eat seeds fast enough to prevent the forest regrowth which would normally replace the trees felled by people to build houses and canoes or for firewood.

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Paris Hilton

Really?

1) Fruits fall to ground.

2) Introduced rats scoff fruits and proliferate.

3) Trees grow older.

4) ?????

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The same way Scotland did, and large parts of North America

A quick read shows that outsiders, especially Chileans, although they were merely accelerating what had been already introduced by Europeans, cut down what wasn't; useful for grazing animals, cut down what they needed for short-term use, i.e. fires and buildings, and really did not give a flying anything to the fact that they were denuding a perfectly functional island. By then, of course, the original settlers (Rapa Nuians) were decimated by illness and turned into semi-slaves. Having been on the island myself, I can tell you that the local population is doing its best to bring back the trees, and have intelligently chosen eucalyptus, which thrives in the climate and grows quickly.

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Joke

RE: Really?

1) Fruits fall to ground.

2) Introduced rats scoff fruits and proliferate.

3) Trees grow older.

4) ?????

5) Profit!

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Rats

don't eat seedlings. They gnaw them. Rodent is derived from the latin "rodere" , which means "gnaw". A well deserved name as steel, concrete, wood, plaster etc etc provides no barrier to those teeth!!

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Happy

There was no evidence they were primitive Jeremy Clarksons

This article is worthwhile for just that one line.

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Re: There was no evidence they were primitive Jeremy Clarksons

Are there any other type of Jeremy Clarksons? I'm confused.

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Trollface

Re: primitive Jeremy Clarksons

Are there any other variety?

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Re: There was no evidence they were primitive Jeremy Clarksons

Isn't that a tautology? Is there any other kind of Jeremy Clarkson than a primitive one? I doubt he is like Worzel Gummidge with a different head for all occasions. His is one big baking potato of a thinker for all situations.

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Pint

Re: "...primitive (sic) Jeremy Clarksons..."

Jeremy Clarkson is just as much of a valuable '(inter)National Treasure' as Stephen Fry; just operating on an entirely different plane. The very mention of his name in this column proves the point explicitly.

(I just wish that all of them, Fry, Clarkson, May, etc., would stop smoking, so that we'd all get to enjoy their humourous talents for as long as possible. And so that they could all enjoy their retirement years living 'happily ever after', as opposed to having cancerous lungs removed. It annoys me to no end to see such successful and treasured people smoking. Criminal waste of humanity's best. Almost as bad as suicidal Michelin-star chefs. Excuse the rant...)

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Re: "...primitive (sic) Jeremy Clarksons..."

National Treasures you may well think they are but that doesn't mean you own them. Let em smoke if they see fit to.

And speaking of Stephen Fry; did you see his recent and excellent rant against FaceBook? Truly awesome and I applaud and agree wholeheartedly. Turds in a reservoir, indeed. My only regret is that I do not have a FaceBook account so that I can shut it down and flounce off as Mr Fry did.

And may I add another national treasure to the list: The stubborn indie band Half Man Half Biscuit, who sit like a sadly neglected dusty exhibit in the back room of a National Trust property that no one ever visits. Shame on us all.

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Re: There was no evidence they were primitive Jeremy Clarksons

Well, it depends. There is of course only one Clarkson. However, there is the witty one, the racist one, the violent one, and even more! Primitive though? Well, I'd have to say that is evidenced by his guest choices (presuming he had any choice).

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Re: There was no evidence they were primitive Jeremy Clarksons

He advertises Amazon firestick thingies. Using a face that looks like a leather bag of lard that's been left in the sun too long. Poor old thing. He should just retire now.

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Re: "...primitive (sic) Jeremy Clarksons..."

Jeremy Clarkson is just as much of a valuable '(inter)National Treasure' as Stephen Fry; just operating on an entirely different plane.

Don't be silly, everyone knows Clarkson operates in an entirely different car.

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Re: operates in an entirely different car.

Yes, but I expect that's mostly because the Beeb could afford the cars but not the planes.

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Books, film promotion equals controversy

Actually it's not an either or situation. The archaeological* evidence strongly indicates both ecological collapse and a population crash. There is also strong evidence for a population recovery until the introduction of disease and slavery by Europeans. Essentially both Diamond and Lipo are correct, but controversy helps sell stuff.

* Disclaimer. Before getting into computery stuff I spent 20+ years being an archaeologist and did read the odd bit or two about Easter Island.

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FAIL

Orlowski can't even get basic facts correct

I'm usually a fan of Orlowski, but with this article he really blew it.

Jared Diamond a "pop science writer"?

No, I took classes from Prof. Jared Diamond while at UCLA in the 70's. Prof. Diamond has been a professor of physiology at UCLA Medical School as well as a leading ornithologist & ecologist, and a professor of geography at UCLA. He is still a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the UCLA School of Public Health & Professor of Geography at UCLA. He is also still a Research

Associate in Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History and a Research Associate in Ornithology and Mammalogy at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History,

He's one of the top cultural anthropology & ecology people in the world today.

You clearly have not read any of Diamonds papers or books.

Sorry, Orlowski, but this is one big FAIL on your part.

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Re: Orlowski can't even get basic facts correct

Ah, you have just confirmed the Prof is a pop science writer

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Re: Orlowski can't even get basic facts correct

You didn't mention any degrees in anthropology. Thus we have yet another good scientist stepping outside his field. Nothing wrong with that, but for you to say his expertise in other fields lends gravitas to his writings on anthropology is a stretch.

When Jared writes on anthropology, he's not an authority and so the "pop science writer" label is defensible.

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Re: Re: Orlowski can't even get basic facts correct

Diamond has a very large field. He is, in the jargon, a neo-environmental determinist and hiis books are as much about human geography as anthropology.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Orlowski can't even get basic facts correct

Sorry, Orlowski, but this is one big FAIL on your part.

That may or may not be true, but I enjoy his articles more than yours.

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Re: Orlowski can't even get basic facts correct

Shirley, the label "Pop Science" has more to do with the writing and the audience than the person writing it.

Pop science would be "lies to children" where facts are sacrificed for a friendly narrative. Like every time Brian Cox is on the TV.

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Re: Orlowski can't even get basic facts correct

That may or may not be true, but I enjoy his articles more than yours
So many problems, so sweetly summarised. We corrode.

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Alien

Pfft, everyone knows...

That Easter Island collapsed once aliens left after they finished putting up their sculpture garden.

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Re: Pfft, everyone knows...

Except that the little bastards did come back and shoot up all of my troops before I could get them into cover behind the statues.

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Re: Pfft, everyone knows...

I thought they cut down all the trees to turn them into pulp to make boxes for all their chocolate eggs.

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Define collapse

If the Polynesians are as mobile and sea-faringly awesome as popular culture would have us believe, then does the depopulation of a single island actually count for anything? Did the people there at the time regard this as a terrible collapse or was it just time to move to a new island and let this one recover? (They would have returned a few centuries hence, except that they bumped into us first.)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Define collapse

Well, that would depend on whether they really had lost all the trees big enough to build seaworthy ships with. It's a bloody long way to the next land.

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Re: Define collapse

I guess it's a terrible collapse when you are IN the terrible collapse. Otherwise it's just "one of those things". Contemporary events in the "Middle East" come to mind.

Also, the Island didn't recover. It will take a bit longer for that to happen. That's the main takeaway point.

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Re: Define collapse

If the Polynesians are as mobile and sea-faringly awesome as popular culture would have us believe, then does the depopulation of a single island actually count for anything?

The deforestation hindered their fishing and seafaring capabilities since they lacked large trees for large boats. By the 1700s and European arrival, Easter Islanders were primarily dependent on farming and chickens, as they'd also exhausted sea bird populations. Their population had crashed from about 15,000 to 2,000ish when the first Europeans arrived in 1722.

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Re: Define collapse

OK, so that sequence of events sounds like a proper collapse. Thanks for answering.

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Re: does the depopulation of a single island

Depopulation? Probably not.

Deforestation? Well, I guess that depends on whether or not you're one of those commie tree-hugger types.

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Just because an idea makes you uncomfortable doesn't make it wrong

Easter Island is where contrarian archeological theories go to live...

Underlying this article seems to be the attitude that people and their tech can't be responsible for the ecological collapse we've seen around the world and through recorded and discovered history. Just because the idea is confronting doesn't make it untrue. Here's a bit of science related to the Pacific:

Ancient Death Toll of Birds Confirmed in New Study

http://www.livescience.com/28153-pacific-island-bird-extinction.html

It's a lot easier to accept that people wipe out huge swaths of the landscape when you've 1) lived on a small, crowded island and 2) notice animals. People visit Oahu and see a paradise...and yet it's lost pretty much all native plants in animals in the blink of an eye. Rapa Nui looks like a blasted, arid wasteland so it's easier to get that it's pretty much trashed. Polynesians and later waves of humans moved throughout the Pacific fairly quickly and wiped out virtually everything in their path. Eventually, they ran out of places to go. (And the big seabird colonies that made massive clouds of birds to guide them in were pretty much all eaten, making those tiny specs of land in the vast Pacific that much harder to find.) All we have left in the oceanic Pacific today are fragments of the plant and bird communities of a few thousand years ago. For anyone interested in ecological history, the following five "popular science" books are great:

The Song of the Dodo - David Quammen

The Future Eaters - Tim Flannery

Guns, Germs and Steel - Jared Diamond

The Origin of Species - Charles Darwin

Collapse - Jared Diamond

Seriously, these are all popular science titles. The first is by a "popular science" writer, the rest are by scientists that area also great and writing about science. Each book is well-written, provoking, well documented and a good read.

Regarding Jared Diamond, really? I assume you're deliberately misrepresenting him. Sure, he's a (Pulitzer winning) popular science writer, but he's also a pretty substantial scientist. "The Birds of Northern Melanesia" with Ernst Mayr is more than enough to prove that. Regarding Collapse, did you read the chapter that includes Tikopia? That's 100% optimistic. If anything, the book is _too_ optimistic.

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Anonymous Coward

"pop science writer"

Ah well...

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Paris Hilton

Reeeehhh?

I'm sure I saw an article pretty much exactly like this shortly after the US proceeded to do the Forever War On Stuff, on this here very hallowed pages of El Reg. Probably when Jared's book came out?

Slow rant day?

Anyway, either because you behave like a drunken sailor or because nature pulls a trick on you, society collapses, soil is gone, point of no return reached, you are dead, it's over. Whether one later wants to shoehorn green memes or anti-green-memes into this fact is rather tedious. The fact that it is even possible to fuck up that bad willingly w/o combustion engines to help along should be food for thought enough.

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Orlowski is not a pop science writer

Rather, he is an alternative Universe science writer. That is his views may be true in another Universe. Or not.

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