Easter Island is a 64 square mile piece of hospitable land, 2,000 miles from South America, the nearest continent, and 1,400 miles from the nearest habitable island. Its soil was formed by volcanoes, making it very fertile. This combination of geographic isolation and fertility should produce a very hospitable and lush landscape. But when the first Europeans reached Easter Island in the late 18th Century, they found a desolate and barren place filled with merely 2,000 savages. The natives had few tools and domestic animals, poor sailing vessels, and little source of lumber and food. They also found giant stone statues resembling human heads, some weighing up to 270 tons. This sparked one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all time, with explanations ranging from settlement by advanced American Indians to extraterrestrials. Archaeologists now believe that the mystery has been solved. Through painstaking and tedious methods, they have revealed a new and ominous explanation of the rise and fall of the people of Easter Island.
Because of language and cultural ties, it is thought that Easter Island was settled by Asian Polynesians sometime between 400 and 700 A.D. What these explorers found was a lush and fertile paradise, with a substantial forest and a large source of food. Trees, shrubs, and bushes were abundant, as well as sea birds, porpoises, seals, and rats. A combination of plants, nectars, and meat constituted the diet of the early settlers. These resources, however, were scattered about the island. The best stone quarries, for making the statues and houses, were located at Rano Raraku, in the northeast, farmland in the south and east, and fishing in the north and west. To organize and coordinate all these resources, and to build the great stone statues, a fairly complex government and society was necessary; one certainly far more complex than the chaos that existed when the first Europeans arrived.
Just a few centuries after human settlement, by the year 800 A.D., deforestation of the island began. This escalated at a rampant rate, until the entire forest disappeared. With no source of lumber, the inhabitants of the island could not erect homes or build canoes to explore, or escape, with. Concurrent with the destruction of the forest came the extinction of the animals. All the species of bird that populated the island soon became extinct. Without the birds to spread the seeds, plant life began to decline as well. The stripping of the land was coupled with the decimation of the oceans. The reefs where fish and porpoises would congregate soon yielded no meat, and the natives were forced to eat chicken, which was scarce and disliked, and eventually other humans. With no food, the governments of the island broke down, and the result was the chaos found by the Europeans who
discovered Easter Island.
Archaeologists and historians warn that Easter Island represents a microcosm of Earth. The people who lived there became exorbitant, and began to destroy their world. If anyone recognized the damage they were doing, they were probably shunned or ignored. In time, their excesses led to their own destruction. Living on such an isolated island, the people had nowhere to go, and by the time they realized what had happened, it was too late. Just as the apparently complex society of Easter Island broke down because of abuse, so too can ours. This, perhaps, is the most important discoveries archaeology can yield--one that not only teaches us something about the past, but about ourselves as well.