Cultural Anthropology

Anthropology the Ecological Lessons of the Past

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"Anthropology the Ecological Lessons of the Past"
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The Ecological Lessons of the Past:

Case Study: Easter Island-


Studies of the relationship between ecology and society have long been part of the discipline of anthropology. This is true not only of contemporary ethnographies, but of archaeological studies of past societies as well. Many ecological anthropologists argue that there is much to be learned from a study of the failures of past societies, especially concerning issues of sustainability.

The present article will pursue the question of what can be learned about ecologically successful patterns of social organization from a study of past societies which have collapsed for ecological reasons. One of the classic studies in this field is Jared Diamond's (1995) article, "Easter's End." In this article, Diamond describes what archeology has discovered concerning the collapse of Easter Island society, as well as the lessons which contemporary society should draw from it.

Background: Easter Island-

Easter Island is one of the most isolated habitable islands on Earth, which is located over 2,000 miles west of South America, in the south Pacific Ocean. With an area of only 64 square miles, Easter Island is most famous for the large, carved stone heads which dot the coastline. Many are erected on shrines, and some wear large carved-stone crowns.

Because of the large size of these statues-some of which were as large as 33 feet tall and weighing up to 82 tons-their construction long remained a mystery. Making their construction even more difficult to comprehend was the fact that the island currently has no suitable timber for moving monuments of this size from the quarries far inland, where they were originally carved. The general poverty of Easter Island society at the time they were first contacted by Western explorers added further to the mystery.

Evidence suggests that the first humans did not settle the island until roughly 400 A. D., so Easter Island was probably among the last habitable pieces of land that humans settled. The indigenous population remaining on the island today still speak a language which is similar to Hawaiian and Marquesan, which was understandable to a Tahitian translator accompanying Captain Cook when he first visited the island in 1774.

Based on floral and faunal analysis, we now know that the original settlers brought with them a variety of Polynesian food crops. These included taro, sweet potatoes and sugar cane, as well as domesticated chickens and, inadvertently, rats as well.

Pollen analysis suggests that when they arrived, they found a habitat very different than today. At the time, the island was covered in subtropical forest, which supported a wide variety of trees. These included large palms suitable for making sturdy canoes and other species suitable for making rope. The island also supported a wide variety of seabirds in large numbers, as well as at least 6 species of land birds.

The sea around them also provided an abundant variety of fish, as well as one of the main sources of meat-porpoises-which had to be hunted far off shore. In fact, from the abundance of cooked bones found, porpoises were a staple food which provided for much of the Easter Islander's diet. The invasive rats, which quickly spread throughout the island, were also eaten.

In terms of demographics, the peak population of the island, based upon prehistoric settlement patterns, is estimated at anywhere between 7000 and 20,000 people. Yet there were only about 2000 left when they were first visited by European explorers in 1722.

By that time their previous civilization, which had allowed for the construction and erection of such massive stone monuments, had completely collapsed. The forest had also been utterly destroyed, leaving only about 47 species of plants, mostly grasses, ferns and sedge, and only two species of small shrubs. Native birds and animals had also been driven to extinction, leaving nothing larger than insects, the domesticated chickens, and the invasive rats.

So What Happened?-

The obvious question, then, is what happened in the span of only about 1000 years, which lead to the destruction of their resource base and the subsequent collapse of their civilization?

In order to understand this, it is necessary to employ ethnographic analogy. Ethnographic analogy is a technique by which we use the physical evidence provided by archeology to reconstruct the type of society a people most likely had. The assumption is that societies with similar social structures leave similar patterns of physical remains.

Like the Hawaiians and other Polynesians to which they were linguistically related, the Easter Islanders were probably organized as complex chiefdoms. This is also consistent with the evidence. Unlike bands and tribes, which are more egalitarian societies, where access to the means of production, wealth and political influence is relatively equal, chiefdoms are known as "ranked" societies.

Cross-culturally, chiefdoms are characterized by a permanent, centralized political authority of some kind. They are also typically characterized by the emergence of different classes of people with differential access to resources and political influence.

For example, many of the Native American societies originally inhabiting the Canadian northwest coast, such as the Kwakiutl, Haida and Tlingit (who are collectively known for their totem poles) were also ranked societies. These societies were divided into three classes: nobles, commoners and slaves, with slaves being captives from raids on rival groups. Each class or rank was inherited, or closed, rather than being achieved (you were either born a noble or a commoner).

One of the important characteristics of historical chiefdoms-as a level of political complexity-is that they are generally characterized by some type of institutionalized /status competition/. This competition is usually between rival chiefs, or rival clans (kin groups), or rival "big men," each of which try to outdo one another.

For example, among the NW Coast cultures, such as the Kwakiutl, this status competition expressed itself through /competitive feasting/, which was referred to as the "potlatch" in their own language. What happened was that a Chief would get his followers to produce a large surplus of food and other goods. He would then invite a rival chief to a great feast where this wealth was redistributed, or given away. Competitive feasting, then, was a means of gaining status and followers through demonstrating one's wealth and generosity. The greater the wealth given away, the greater the status to be gained.

A rival Chief would then have to throw an even larger feast in return in order to avoid being shamed, and forced to admit that his status was lower than that of the Chief who put on the first feast.

As you can imagine, this sort of status competition can lead to an escalation over time. As long as rival Chiefs are successful in topping their competitors, larger and larger feasts will be required through time. Historically, in fact, this is exactly what happened among the Kwakiutl. After contact with European trade goods in the early colonial age, Kwakiutl chiefs even began to /destroy/ large amounts of property, such as blankets, in order to impress their rivals with their great wealth and status.

What seems to have happened on Easter Island is that a similar type of status competition between rival Chiefs or clans expressed itself through statue building. One Chief erected a statue in order to impress his rivals, and in order to gain followers and status. His rival or rivals then had to build a larger statue, or more of them, in order to demonstrate their higher status, and so on. It would be as if the Kwakiutl had competed for status through building larger and larger totem poles, rather than having larger feasts. Over time, however, this lead to a positive feedback, or an escalation through which more and larger statues had to be built in order to demonstrate a chief's or clan's higher status.

Thus, Easter Island's society, like our own with it's ideal of infinite economic growth on a finite planet, was based upon the intensification of production, specifically, the production of statues. And, as in our society, this intensification was linked to status competition among an elite class. Most likely, the process slowly escalated over time. Intensification of horticultural production may also have been necessary in order to support a growing population, and perhaps specialized craftsmen to carve the statues.

The problem was that statue building escalated to the point where it was no longer sustainable. In other words, trees were being cut down faster then they could regrow in order to provide logs to transport the statues and rope to erect them. The forests were being used up faster than they could naturally regenerate. Eventually, the Easter Islanders were cutting shorter and shorter trees in order to try to keep the competition going, and finally they had driven all of the local trees to extinction. This left them in a position where they couldn't even construct the type of sea worthy canoes which they used to harvest porpoises, which had been one of their staple foods, because they no longer had any wood.

Consequently, after largely destroying their resource base through overconsumption, the Easter Islanders eventually had to turn to other sources of food. After all, the destruction of the forest also caused the extinction of pretty much all of the native wildlife on the island as well, due to loss of habitat.

In fact, with no boats to hunt porpoises, and the loss of indigenous wildlife, they were unable to support their previous population levels. This resulted in the rapid collapse of both their politically complex culture, and their populations. There is even evidence that they eventually resorted to cannibalism as a source of protein (which is very rare cross-culturally).

Conclusion: The Lessons of the Past-

I expect that it is easy to see why this article quickly became a classic example of ecological overshoot and the subsequent collapse of a society due to unsustainable resource use. The reason is that it is such a perfect metaphor for our own situation as we enter the 21st century.

First, Easter Island is a perfect metaphor for what happens when a society attempts to maximize productivity in a finite environment. In other words, it is an excellent example of what happens when a society consistently harvests resources at an unsustainable rate, leading to ecological degradation of their resource base. As many ecologists have pointed out over the last several decades, this is exactly what our own society is doing at present.

Second, the question with which Diamond ends his essay raises a very important point. This is because Easter Island society and Western capitalism are also similar in another very important way. Easter Island society, like our own, was caught up in a status competition between rival elites. And this status competition lead to a positive feedback which caused their patterns of resource exploitation to escalate. In fact, this pattern of status competition and escalation appears to be the central factor which lead to unsustainable rates of resource exploitation and the collapse of their society.

The same is true in our own society, where the capitalist elite is engaged in a similar, escalating pattern of status competition, though not to build the biggest statue, but rather the biggest international financial empire. The popular media calls this type of competition "economic growth," and outside of ecologists, most people assume that such a competition is /required/ in order for our economic system to function successfully. And this despite the fact that infinite growth in a finite environment is a logical and material impossibility.

So when Diamond asks at the end of his article: "What were the Easter Islanders thinking when they cut down the last tree?", keep in mind that it was probably not one of the elite who chopped down the tree. More likely, it was one of the commoners, and they were simply doing what they was told by their superiors.

Or as we like to put it in our own society, "They were just doing their job, so its not their fault."

The better question to ask yourself, then, is not "What were /they/ doing?", but rather "What are /we/ doing?" Especially considering the fact that we supposedly live in a much more educated, enlightened and democratic society. And, of course, we also have the benefit of knowing something of world history and prehistory.

The ecological moral to the Easter Island story, then, is simply this: "those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it."

Reference, additional reading:

Jared Diamond (1995) "Easter's End," Discover, August.

More about this author: Roy C Dudgeon

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