Easter Island (whose native name is Rapa Nui) in the South Pacific is generally seen as an example of the Tragedy of the Commons: inhabitants selfishly depleted the island’s shared natural resources, leading to their own eventual doom. Settlers arrived there in 800 A.D. and found a lush island filled with forests, then over the next thousand years proceeded to cut the trees down and make canoes for fishing, houses for living, and tools for farming. But they didn’t realize how fragile the ecosystem on the island was, and that the trees, once cut, would be very difficult to grow back. After several centuries, there were virtually no trees on the island, and since it’s one of the most isolated places on earth and was therefore devoid of trade, this meant there were no more canoes, houses or farming tools. And even if there were, without protection from the trees, fierce winds eroded the soil so much that farming was next to impossible. Eventually, lack of food and the resulting violence decimated the population.
Dutch explorers discovered the island on Easter Sunday (hence its Western name) in 1622, about 75 years after the last forests had disappeared; they described the island as having rich soil and being cultivated, and of course having a shore lined with giant statues. Roughly 50 years later, Spanish explorers found it and also mentioned the statues, but said the land was largely uncultivated. Four years after that, James Cook said the soil was poor and the statues neglected, with some having fallen down. In 1786, French explorers reported only 10% of the island was cultivated and finally, in 1825, a British ship reported no standing statues.
The prevalent theory is that the impressive statues, which were central to the Rapa Nui religion, had all been toppled in a quick 50 years — after having watched over the shore for centuries — because the islanders didn’t think to protect the environment they all shared. The fact is that the island was slowly deforested, which led to soil erosion and a lack of fishing canoes, which led to a lack of food, which led to civil war and eventually cannibalism. By 1877, thanks to additional deaths from genocide committed by slave traders in the 1860s and the smallpox introduced by them, the island’s population was down to 111 people — from about 3,000 when it was first discovered by Europeans, and probably around 10,000 a few decades before that. In 1888, it was annexed by Chile (the closest large country) as a result of a treaty with the remaining natives. The tragedy is told in a 2006 book called Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed.
But recently, a couple of archaeologists have threaded a different story through those same facts and published it in a book called The Statues That Walked: Unraveling The Mystery of Easter Island. Their theory is that the original Polynesian settlers of the island arrived in 1200 A.D., (400 years after the generally accepted date) and purposely brought rats with them on their canoes along with chickens, in order to eat them. Once on the island, however, without any natural predators, the rats flourished on their own and ate the nuts of the now-extinct and slow-growing Easter Island palm tree, thereby preventing their reseeding. And so the trees were decimated due to rats brought by the settlers, not directly by the settlers’ hands. Even so, they figured out ways around soil erosion: stone enclosures were built around farms to protect them from winds, and the soil was enriched with volcanic gravel. They practiced population control and generally lived a sustainable existence until the Europeans came, who introduced new diseases and new status symbols aside from the giant statues. Eventually, the Rapa Nui started dying en masse and stopped caring about the statues, which subsequently fell into disrepair. These archaeologists also believe that obsidian weapons that have been discovered were actually farming tools, and that there was no civil war.
One other difference in their theory: how the statues got to the shore from the dormant volcano where they were made, miles away. (Statues at various stages of completion have been found in a quarry in the volcano and on the route from there to the beach.) Mainstream thinking is that the statues were made at the quarry, then rolled on logs to the shore. But while the authors of the alternative theory don’t believe oral tradition about violence and cannibalism, they do believe the tradition which says the statues walked to the shore. And what’s more, it may actually be true: in a video of experiments funded by National Geographic, it’s clear that a very large and heavy statue can be made to walk with a few strong ropes and three groups of people pulling it from one side and the other. The secret: the statues’ giant heads and potbelly design makes them heavy in the front, giving them forward momentum and allowing the islanders to use gravity to help propel the statue forward.