Why Easter Island collapsed: an answer for an enduring question
Easter Island is the most isolated inhabited spot on Earth, devoid of heavy timber and most resources. Yet, the first European travellers to the island marvelled at large and delicately carved statues covering the whole of the island. For centuries, they wondered how those statues were built and transported, resorting to myth and fantasy to explain them. In the twentieth century, it was revealed that the first settlers to inhabit the island encountered a resource rich and bountiful tropical land, abundant in resources. They developed a complex society with strong hierarchy and sophisticated religious rituals, including the carving, transporting, and erecting of the large statues. Gradually, they exploited their resource base to extinction, and consequently fell into decline. Historians have put to rest any theories about the transport and erection of statues. Instead, they debate the causes for decline, and wonder why the islanders permitted the continued exploitation of their resource base, even after they were aware that they were causing severe damages to the environment. Jared Diamond has asked the question, “What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?” This study examines the available historical, archaeological, and anthropological evidence, and combines it with theories of institutional economics pertaining to the management and governing of common-pool resources, in order to arrive at a theory for explaining why Easter Islanders permitted the destruction of their island habitat, and what motivated them to continue doing so. The results show that Easter Island’s ecosystem was unusually fragile, and consequently, in the long-term, decline and collapse was inevitable. The study concludes with implications for modern society.
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