Easter Island Not Destroyed By War Over ‘Scarce Resources’, New Analysis Shows

GWPF | 18 Feb 2016

Research Confirms Peiser’s 2005 Critique Of Jared Diamond

A new study led by a Binghamton University archaeologist contradicts the belief that the ancient civilization of Rapa Nui, Chile, was destroyed by warfare. An analysis of artifacts found on what was previously called Easter Island revealed that these objects were likely general purpose tools and not spear points, says Carl Lipo, professor of anthropology at Binghamton and lead author on the study, published this month in the journal Antiquity. Lipo’s study suggests that the ancient civilization never experienced the oft-theorized warfare. Instead, the belief that the mata’a were weapons used in the collapse of the civilization is likely a late-European interpretation of the record. “What people traditionally think about the island is being this island of catastrophe and collapse just isn’t true in a pre-historic sense,” Lipo says. “Populations were successful and lived sustainably on the island up until European contact.” –John Brhel, Binghamton University, 17 February 2016

The ‘decline and fall’ of Easter Island and its alleged self-destruction has become the poster child of a new environmentalist historiography, a school of thought that goes hand-in-hand with predictions of environmental disaster. According to Jared Diamond, the people of Easter Island destroyed their forest, degraded the island’s topsoil, wiped out their plants and drove their animals to extinction. As a result of this self-inflicted environmental devastation, its complex society collapsed, descending into civil war, cannibalism and self-destruction. While his theory of ecocide has become almost paradigmatic in environmental circles, a dark and gory secret hangs over the premise of Easter Island’s self-destruction: An actual genocide terminated Rapa Nui’s indigenous populace and its culture. –Benny Peiser, From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui Energy & Environment, July 2005

1) Easter Island Not Destroyed By War, New Analysis Shows
Binghamton University, 17 February 2016

2) Cautionary Tale Of Easter Island Trashed By European Contact
The Australian, 18 February 2016

3) Benny Peiser: From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui
Energy & Environment, July 2005


Easter Island was deforested in ancient times, scientists say, but not to provide wood for moving giant statues. It is a cautionary tale for our time: a thriving civilisation that obliterated itself in war after ­exhausting the natural resources and trashing the environment. But researchers have ­debunked the theory that Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, self-destructe­d. In a study published yesterday in the journal
­Antiquity, they claim the island’s supposed war weapons were used for cultivating plants and making tattoos. Carl Lipo, an anthropologist at Binghamton University in New York, said Rapa Nui’s image as an “island of catastrophe” did not match the historical record. “What is considered evidence of ‘collapse’ is simply confusion with the events of post-contact with Europeans,” he told The Australian. “The collapse was entirely triggered by Europeans.” –John Ross, The Australian, 18 February 2016

In the past two decades, this continuously growing body of work [on Easter Island] has arrived at almost unanimous consensus. It is a warning to contemporary human civilization: the story of an intelligent and sophisticated society capable of carving, transporting and erecting multitonne stone statues by exploiting the natural resources of their island habitat, but eventually collapsing because of the environmental degradation and resource exhaustion that they brought upon themselves. The accompanying metaphor, a gloomy prognosis for humanity’s symbiotic relationship with the environment, has weaved itself into the public consciousness.  Unsurprisingly, a few dissident scholars challenge the status quo version of Easter’s history. Benny Peiser and Paul Rainbird claim that evidence for ecological collapse on Easter is inconclusive, and that other causes for the destruction of Island society exist, but these causes are neglected by most. Peiser argues that the promotion of an ecocide scenario is the result of ulterior motives by “environmental campaigners” seeking to promote ecological collapse scenarios in order to stoke anxieties about the future of the environment.  He underscores inconsistencies with carbon dating techniques and records of oral traditions, and both Peiser and Rainbird suggest that Easter society only collapsed because of interaction with Europeans. As will be shown however, their work is insufficient in countering the weight of overwhelming evidence that coincides with the sudden and dramatic destruction of Easter Island’s environment. — Barzin Pakandam, Why Easter Island Collapsed: An Answer for an Enduring Question, London School of Economics, Working Papers February 2009

1) Easter Island Not Destroyed By War, New Analysis Shows
Binghamton University, 17 February 2016

John Brhel

A new study led by a Binghamton University archaeologist contradicts the belief that the ancient civilization of Rapa Nui, Chile, was destroyed by warfare.

An analysis of artifacts found on what was previously called Easter Island revealed that these objects were likely general purpose tools and not spear points, says Carl Lipo, professor of anthropology at Binghamton and lead author on the study, published this month in the journal Antiquity.

People have long believed that the island civilization ran out of resources and, as a result, engaged in massive in-fighting, which led to its collapse. Thousands of obsidian, triangular objects found on the surface, known as mata’a, seemed to support this theory. Because of their large numbers and because they’re made of sharp glass, many believed the mata’a were weapons of war.

Lipo and his team analyzed the shape variability of a photo set of 400-plus mata’a collected from the island using a technique known as morphometrics, which allowed them to characterize the shapes in a quantitative manner. Based on the wide variability in shape and their difference from other traditional weapons, the team determined that the mata’a were not used in warfare after all.

“We found that when you look at the shape of these things, they just don’t look like weapons at all,” Lipo says. “When you can compare them to European weapons or weapons found anywhere around the world when there are actually objects used for warfare, they’re very systematic in their shape. They have to do their job really well. Not doing well is risking death.”

He says the mata’a wouldn’t be lethal. “You can always use something as a spear,” Lipo says. “Anything that you have can be a weapon. But under the conditions of warfare, weapons are going to have performance characteristics. And they’re going to be very carefully fashioned for that purpose because it matters.”

Lipo’s study suggests that the ancient civilization never experienced the oft-theorized warfare. Instead, the belief that the mata’a were weapons used in the collapse of the civilization is likely a late-European interpretation of the record.

“What people traditionally think about the island is being this island of catastrophe and collapse just isn’t true in a pre-historic sense,” Lipo says. “Populations were successful and lived sustainably on the island up until European contact.”

Lipo and his team believe that the mata’a are found all over the landscape because they were cultivation tools used in ritual tasks like tattooing or domestic activities such as plant processing.

“We’ve been trying to focus on individual bits of evidence that support the collapse narrative to demonstrate that really there’s no support whatsoever for that story,” he says. “Sort of a pillar of the broader study is the fact that this is an amazing society that really was successful. It just doesn’t look like success to us because we see fields that are rock, we think catastrophe, and in fact it’s actually productivity.”

2) Cautionary Tale Of Easter Island Trashed By European Contact
The Australian, 18 February 2016

John Ross

Easter Island was deforested in ancient times, scientists say, but not to provide wood for moving giant statues.

It is a cautionary tale for our time: a thriving civilisation that obliterated itself in war after ­exhausting the natural resources and trashing the environment.

But researchers have ­debunked the theory that Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, self-destructe­d. In a study published yesterday in the journal ­Antiquity, they claim the island’s supposed war weapons were used for cultivating plants and making tattoos.

Carl Lipo, an anthropologist at Binghamton University in New York, said Rapa Nui’s image as an “island of catastrophe” did not match the historical record.

“Populations were successful and lived sustainably up until European contact,” Professor Lipo said. “It doesn’t look like success to us because we see fields (of) rock (and) think catastrophe. In fact, it’s productivity.”

Many believe Rapa Nui’s people ran out of resources by cutting down the island’s giant palm trees to help move the ­distinctive statues, or moai.
This denied them canoe-­building material and transformed the island into an eroded moonscape, triggering in-fighting which led to the society’s ­collapse.

Advocates of the theory point to thousands of triangular pieces of volcanic glass scattered around the island. Known as mata’a, they are assumed to be ancient spear points.

Professor Lipo’s team ­analysed a photo set of more than 400 mata’a using a shape-analysis technique called “morpho­metrics”. The study concluded that the objects would have made poor weapons, and were probably used in agriculture and ritual ceremonies.

“You would cut somebody with a mata’a, but they certainly wouldn’t be lethal,” he said.

“You can always use something as a spear, (but) these things don’t look like weapons at all. Weapons used for warfare anywhere around the world (are) very ­systematic in their shape. They have to do their job well — not doing well is risking death.”

He acknowledged the early Rapa Nui people had removed the trees, but to clear space for growing sweet potatoes. They had never been used for making canoes or building houses.

Easter Island’s social collapse had occurred between the arrival of the first European visitor — Dutch captain Jacob Roggeveen in 1722 — and Captain James Cook more than 50 years later. Illness and slave raids devastated the population, while sheep-farming in the 19th century caused the erosion.

“What is considered evidence of ‘collapse’ is simply confusion with the events of post-contact with Europeans,” he told The Australian. “The collapse was entirely triggered by Europeans.”

3) Benny Peiser: From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui
Energy & Environment, July 2005

Abstract
The ‘decline and fall’ of Easter Island and its alleged self-destruction has become the poster child of a new environmentalist historiography, a school of thought that goes hand-in-hand with predictions of environmental disaster. Why did this exceptional civilisation crumble? What drove its population to extinction? These are some of the key questions Jared Diamond endeavours to answer in his new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. According to Diamond, the people of Easter Island destroyed their forest, degraded the island’s topsoil, wiped out their plants and drove their animals to extinction. As a result of this self-inflicted environmental devastation, its complex society collapsed, descending into civil war, cannibalism and self-destruction. While his theory of ecocide has become almost paradigmatic in environmental circles, a dark and gory secret hangs over the premise of Easter Island’s self-destruction: An actual genocide terminated Rapa Nui’s indigenous populace and its culture. Diamond, however, ignores and fails to address the true reasons behind Rapa Nui’s collapse. Why has he turned the victims of cultural and physical extermination into the perpetrators of their own demise? This paper is a first attempt to address this disquieting quandary. It describes the foundation of Diamond’s environmental revisionism and explains why it does not hold up to scientific scrutiny. […]

THOR HEYERDAHL, JARED DIAMOND AND THE MYTH OF RAPA NUI’S SELF-DESTRUCTION

Most authors who have written about Easter Island have acknowledged the enduring influence and popularity Heyerdahl’s theories had during the second half of the 20th century. Diamond readily admits that his own interest in Easter Island “was kindled over 40 years ago by reading Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki account and his romantic interpretation of Easter’s history; I thought then that nothing could top that interpretation for excitement” (Diamond, 2005:82). Yet Heyerdahl’s appeal was not just his eccentric romanticism; his narration contained a much darker, racialist streak. One cannot help but wonder how Diamond can be so blissfully oblivious of these connotations and the inadvertent influence they have asserted on his own depiction of Easter Island’s history.

To understand the similarities (and differences) between Heyerdahl’s and Diamond’s historical reconstructions, one must consider the views of those archaeologists and anthropologists who preceded Heyerdahl’s paradigm of Rapa Nui’s self-destruction. There is indeed a striking contrast between the position of those researchers who impugn European atrocities for the collapse of Rapa Nui’s civilization and those (like Heyerdahl and Diamond) who blame the natives themselves for their demise. An examination of the viewpoints held by eminent researchers prior to Heyerdahl elucidates this point.

The Franco-Belgian expedition in 1934 led by Alfred Métraux and Henry Lavachery (Métraux, 1940) scrutinised Easter Island’s statues in detail. The team tried to reconstruct the stylistic and historical evolution of statue building. Both researchers came to a reasonable – and some might say plausible – explanation of why the production of statues and the entire statue cult came to an end.

Lavachery divided the cultural history of statue production into five periods, the last of which corresponded with the disaster brought on by European slave-raids and the natives’ subsequent near-extinction. He proposed that the carving of statues in the quarries actually continued until the sculptors and their customers were taken captive and hauled off from the island by whalers and slave-raiders in the 19th century (Lavachery, 1935). In short: “For a lack of orders, the sculptors did not finish the works they had begun, and as a result of the disaster that struck the island monumental sculpture disappeared” (Metraux, 1957:161).

This explanation was by far the most compelling reconstruction of the history and end of Rapa Nui’s statues. Not only was there no solid evidence that the statue cult had come to an end by the time of European discovery in 1722 – in fact, the statue cult was still in practise during much of the 18th century. Unfortunately, the views by Métraux and Lavachery have been largely forgotten in contemporary discussions about the possible reasons for the cessation of the statue cult.

The main culprit for this amnesia was Heyerdahl and his imaginative rewriting of Easter Island’s prehistory. His theory was a direct attack on the findings by Métraux and Lavachery. Not only had their research confirmed the Polynesian origins of Rapa Nui’s indigenous culture; they also placed most of the blame for its destruction at the feet of Europeans. It was this two-fold conclusion that Heyerdahl attacked head-on after World War II – and which he finally succeeded to overturn.

It was Heyerdahl’s conviction – based on his belief in the authenticity of these myths and oral traditions – that the large statues were produced by the superior Caucasian settlers during what he called the Middle Period. These were members of a race of “light-skinned” people who were called ‘Long-Ears’ due to their large plugs that elongated their earlobes. According to Heyerdahl’s race theory, they constructed the stone statues, cutting them in their own image (Holton, 2004). It was during this imaginary zenith of the island’s civilisation that the “dark-skinned” Polynesian migrants arrived. After centuries of peaceful coexistence, conflicts between the two races mounted and finally culminated in a war of extermination. Relying on dubious and largely unreliable genealogies put together by the island’s parish priest, Father Sebastian Englert (1948/1970), Heyerdahl maintained that the legendary “race war” resulted in the extermination of the light-skinned ‘Long-Ears’ by their dark-skinned adversaries and the termination of the statue cult in AD 1680 (Heyerdahl and Ferdon, 1961). Thus, the mythological civil war which caused the collapse of the statue cult plays a decisive role in Heyerdahl’s racial history of Easter Island’s collapse. It is important to understand the implications of Heyerdahl’s revisionism.

According to his plot, the destruction of Rapa Nui’s statue cult and its complex society was not the fault of European perpetrators. On the contrary, he blamed the natives for their own demise: Heyerdahl claimed that shortly before the arrival of the Europeans, in 1680 to be precise, a civil war had already led to Easter Island’s self-destruction. During the last few decades, genetic, linguistic and archaeological research has essentially ruled out his claim of two separate settlement movements by two distinct populations. Yet in spite of overwhelming rejection of his theories, Heyerdahl’s key premise – that of a civil war around 1680 – is generally accepted by Diamond and most of his contemporaries. Even some of his foremost critics who blame climatic changes during the Little Ice Age rather than human action for Easter Island’s deforestation consent to Heyerdahl’s story line of civil war and societal collapse in the 17th century (Orliac and Orliac, 1998:132).

[…] In brief, there is little if any archaeological evidence for pre-European civil war or societal collapse. On the other hand, there is forceful evidence to suggest that the natives’ recollections of warfare and violent conflict most likely belong to the hostilities in the wake of European attacks on the island. They may conceivably be linked to tribal conflicts that resulted from societal breakdown and the apparent transfer of foreign populations which occurred in the 1860s. Whatever the case may be, Heyerdahl’s erroneous dating of a mythological civil war to the year 1680 forms a cornerstone of Diamond’s narrative of Easter Island’s self-destruction, without which there is no solid evidence for either civil war or societal collapse.

“A HOLOCAUST OF INTERNECINE WARFARE AND CANNIBALISM”?

Given Diamond’s self-declared ecological commitment, it is not surprising to find that his views on what he has called Easter Island’s self-inflicted “holocaust” were fully formed long before he started to study the island’s history in any great detail. The blueprint for “Collapse” and its key thesis of ‘ecological suicide’ goes back to his first bestseller, published in 1991 under the Gibbon-esque title “The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee” (Diamond, 1991). On one page, and without much elaboration, Diamond asserted that Easter Island’s “society collapsed in a holocaust of internecine warfare and cannibalism” as a result of deforestation and soil erosion.

In Collapse, Diamond attempts to buttress this core premise with reference to selective data and arguments. Failing to assess many of the contentious issues in an even-handed and impartial manner, he approaches scientific problems from the standpoint of an environmental campaigner and inevitably arrives at flawed conclusions.

This deficiency in scrutiny and critical analysis is particularly apparent in his treatment of alleged cannibalism among Easter Island’s indigenous population. Already in 1995, he contended that civil war and starvation drove the natives to eat each other:

“They also turned to the largest remaining meat source available: humans, whose bones became common in late Easter Island garbage heaps. Oral traditions of the islanders are rife with cannibalism; the most inflammatory taunt that could be snarled at an enemy was “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.” (Diamond, 1995)

Throughout his writings, Diamond seems obsessed with what Arens (1979) calls the Man-Eating Myth, a gullible belief unsupported by any empirical evidence. Just as his certainty in the folklore of pre-European civil war and collapse is based on his confidence in myth and legend, Diamond’s fascination with the island’s “holocaust of cannibalism” relates to his acceptance of unreliable sources.

A closer examination of his claims reveals that the accusation of “cannibalism” was a European fabrication invented during a time when European whalers and raiders repeatedly attacked the island’s population. The allegation first surfaced in 1845 in a report in the French journal L’univers. According to the sensationalist tabloid-style story, the young commander of a French vessel that had landed on Easter Island fortuitously “escaped being the victim of cannibals…. Mr Olliver was brought back on board; his whole body was covered with wounds. He had, on various parts of his body, the teeth marks of these cruel islanders, who had begun to eat him alive” (Fischer, 1992: 73).

Most researchers concur that this horror-story is most likely a hoax, “one of the most ridiculous yarns ever spun about the island” (Bahn, 1997), in short the fictional fantasy of mid-nineteen century European bigotry. Nevertheless, the anecdote appears to have had a significant impact on the French missionaries who were the first Europeans to settle on the island about 20 years after the reported incident. It is from their reports and allegations that we hear about the practice of cannibalism among the natives. More importantly, the French missionaries invoke the traditional claim that cannibalism was rampant among Easter’s population until the introduction of Christianity (Métraux, 1940:150).

The mere fact that some converts to Christianity later accused their pagan ancestors of engaging in cannibalism can hardly be taken as adequate evidence for the practices. After all, the converts had absorbed the new creed and its teachings which inevitably tainted their views of the ‘detestable’ past of their pagan culture. What is more, admitting to cannibalism may have played an important part of the ‘dialogue’ with their European masters, perhaps as a “weapon of terror, one of the few weapons they possessed in an unequal contest” (Hulme, 1998: 23).

Bahn (1997), who has critically evaluated the missionaries’ dubious reports of alleged cannibalism, points out that “it is certainly noteworthy that none of the early European visitors before the missionaries ever alluded to the practice.” Most importantly, the first scientific exploration of the island in 1914 confirmed that the indigenous population vehemently denied that they (or their ‘fathers’) had ever been cannibals (Routledge, 1919).

Despite the lack of any empirical evidence and notwithstanding prevalent scepticism, Diamond bolsters his allegation of cannibalism because it reinforces his horror-scenario of an ecological ‘holocaust’. Contemporary ethnographical research, however, has confirmed that there is hardly any tangible evidence for the existence of cannibalism (other than individual) “anywhere, in any period” (Flenley and Bahn, 2003:157). Given the extreme rarity of cannibalism ‘anywhere, in any period’, the so-called ‘oral traditions’ shaped by European missionaries and their converts about its practice on Easter Island should be discarded once and for all. […]

Full paper

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One thought on “Easter Island Not Destroyed By War Over ‘Scarce Resources’, New Analysis Shows

  1. The peoples of Easter Island left the Earth willingly, and they were a wonderful people. They will be back as the statures watch the sky, They smell like a thousand gardens, being a highly developed society.

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