Rats vs. Easter Islanders: How the Islanders (sort of) won

Jared Diamond's account of the collapse of Easter Island society is well known by now — how the Islanders decimated their ecosystem and drove themselves to the brink of starvation by using up the island's natural resources at a furious rate. But that's not the only possible explanation for how Easter Island lost its tree cover and ended up with a much-reduced population. In fact, some anthropologists say there's not really any hard evidence that the Islanders were practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, clearing the land with fire.

Instead, this other theory blames the little creature pictured above — the Polynesian rat, an invasive species that stowed away on canoes and chewed its way through the roots, sprouts, and seeds of Easter Island's trees. Instead of willfully destroying themselves, this scenario has the islanders desperately adapting to a quickly changing environment. It's not that the changes had nothing to do with people — the rats got there with human help, after all — but the angle of the story changes somewhat, becoming less about the destructive aspects of human nature and more about the lengths humans will go to in order to survive.

Image: Cliff from Arlington, via CC license

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  1. Neat article. A couple of things, though:

    What the shit? Is this possible? What kind of minerals from what kind of rocks can be extracted by just wind?

    Also:

    Come on. Tang WAS delicious!

  2. Am I the only who thinks "decimate" is misused all the time? Originally it meant to kill one in ten - which isn't that bad.

  3. I thought this might be more like Raoul Silva's "rats vs. islanders" anecdote from Skyfall:

    My grandmother had an island when I was a boy. Nothing to boast of. You could walk along it in an hour. But still, it was - it was a paradise for us. One summer, we came for a visit and discovered the whole place had been infested with rats. They'd come on a fishing boat and had gorged themselves on coconut. So how do you get rats off an island, hmm? My grandmother showed me. We buried an oil drum, and hinged the lid. Then we wired coconut to the lid as bait. The rats come for the coconut, and... they fall into the drum, and after a month, you've trapped all the rats. But what did you do then? Throw the drum into the ocean? Burn it? No. You just leave it. And they begin to get hungry, then one by one... they start eating each other, until there are only two left. The two survivors. And then what - do you kill them? No. You take them, and release them into the trees. Only now, they don't eat coconut anymore. Now they will only eat rat. You have changed their nature.

  4. hhype says:

    Over the years there have been many competing theories of what happened to the Easter Islanders and why there cultured declined from its height. Rats eating the the roots and seeds of the palm trees is one of the more recent ones. Before that it was climate change, before that it was the shear exuberance of Moai building (887 moai from 1100CE to 1700CE, ~1.5 moai/year!) and over-harvesting the wood that was needed.

    Of course researchers only pick one and try to prove it on order to make a name for themselves. It is possible that all are right. That the trees could have survived the rats if only the climate hadn't changed or they weren't cut so fast to make Moai. Perhaps the trees would have kept up with Moai building if there were seeds left from the rats. But no one gets published with a moderate paper saying that the decline was a combination of factors because it looks like then you don't know the answer.

    The other thing not mentioned in the story is that there was disruption on the island of the culture and authority structures. At one point in the early 1800's every single standing moa on the ahu on the island were knocked down during intertribal fighting. Any Moai standing today not in the quarry or the quarry road have been restored to be upright. That to me sounds like the Easter Islanders didn't quietly accept and gradually accept their fate, there were disruptions.

    The final one was the arrival of Europeans, European diseases, and finally Peruvian slave traders that raided the island. I wish we had the alternate history version where the culture survived and spread, we learned Rongorongo and they told us what happened.

  5. I always knew garlic sauce was that strong. It's damn powerful on sandwiches, too.

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