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Thread: Rapanui

  1. #1 Rapanui 
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    The Rapanui are the Polynesian peoples inhabiting Easter Island. They arrived there some time approximating 1,000 years ago, plus or minus a few hundred. There is no doubt, from pollen studies, that the island was originally covered with forest, including a giant palm tree, before human contact, and that forest cover largely disappeared as a result of human activity. European contact happened early in the 18th Century. By the time missionaries arrived, a little over 100 years later, the Rapanui were a sorry people. Few, unhealthy, and hungry, and with lots of inter-clan warfare.

    A lot of people have claimed that the Rapanui caused their own downfall through a kind of 'ecocide'. That is : destroying their own society by first destroying their natural environment. Some theorists have claimed that the numerous stone statues, or moai, took so much effort, and so much of the island's resources, that they precipitated the collapse. One of those making these claims is the very successful author Jared Diamond.

    I dispute this. There is no doubt that the forest cover was removed. There is also no doubt that the people were in a sad state when the first missionaries arrived to document their state. However, the cause of their sad state is somewhat debatable.

    The Rapanui very sadly, came to the attention of unscrupulous European seamen long before the first missionaries arrived. Those seamen engaged in what has been called 'blackbirding' - a more polite word for slavery. Rapanui people, by the hundreds were abducted and taken to South and Central America as slaves to work on the sugar plantations. This is clearly proven by the ships logs of those captains who engaged in this evil trade. In addition, those first Europeans inadvertently introduced smallpox, which killed large numbers of the Rapanui people.

    Food should not, in fact, have been that big an issue for the pre-European Rapanui. They grew sweet potato and gourd. Both are crops that flourish on their island, and produce heaps of food per acre. They also had a very lush fishery off their shores. We know that they also grew taro and yam, but it is not certain if that began before Europeans.

    The inter-clan warfare is hardly unusual. Such fighting is very, very common among primitive peoples. There is no need to ascribe it to food shortage. After all, how many European wars came as a result of food shortage?

    My view is that Jared Diamond and others of his ilk made their conclusions early, and before considering all the historical data about earlyEuropean contact. The Rapanui were hammered by the smallpox and the slave trade. Not by ecocide.


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  3. #2  
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    There was a programme on the BBC4 channel a short while back that went into this subject.Unfortunately I can't seem to find it to download anywhere and it is not on the BBC iPlayer either.

    BBC Four - Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World

    I seem to remember it was in broad agreement with the points you are making and I would not be surprised if that wasn't more or less the prevailing view now (although my own knowledge is extremely sketchy , based on that one programme and my own personal biases or predispositions)


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    The polynesian groups didn't have sweet potatoes about 1000 to 1100. It's somewhat interesting because this about the same time the worst deforestation and massive erosion started in their island.

    Fish in tropical waters have low replacement rates except near ocean upwelling which doesn't apply. Any abundant fish, like all tropical waters, particularly without a lot of nutrient replacement from the low rainfall island, would have been quickly overfished.

    Here's a good paper that shows the poor soil conditions starting about 1000 and the timeline.
    http://www.researchgate.net/publicat...b72a3e1257.pdf

    Steel got a lot wrong, particularly in missing the critical role of the rats in eating most of the seeds that finally decimated the already relatively low tree reproductivity. He doesn't really even get into some of the worst parts, such as the massive extinctions and drop in diversity--hallmarks of the ecological disaster. But I think his work was probably before the growing recognition by ecologist that most extinctions and biodiversity loss are indirect effects of humans, rather than being active reduction of the resources by consumption. Even his somewhat inaccurate depiction of the events gets the core part correct about human actions destroying their own sustainable environment--a common experience we still have yet to learn.
    Last edited by Lynx_Fox; June 10th, 2014 at 12:02 AM.
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    We know that sweet potato came from South America, meaning the Rapanui people must have travelled there at some stage. However, when that happened is less important to this discussion, since the time when the missionaries arrived and described them in such lowly terms was a time in which they had sweet potato.

    We know that deforestation occurred, but my point is that the real damage to the people happened when the first Europeans arrived, taking slaves and distributing smallpox. Well before the missionaries and their very negative descriptions.
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    You are correct about the slavery and other impacts from Westerners, that no doubt made things worse before the missionaries arrived mid 19th century. But there were centuries of ecological destruction and depopulation well before any Europeans.

    Captain Cook's, one of the first Europeans to visit the island recorded the desperate conditions of the island and it's population well before any European slavery.

    "...No Nation will ever contend for the honour of the discovery of Easter Island as there is hardly an Island in this sea which affords less refreshments, and conveniences for Shiping than it does. Nature has hardly provided it with any thing fit for man to eat or drink, and as the Natives are but few and may be supposed to plant no more than sufficient for themselves, they cannot have much to spare to new comers...."

    He also commented on the fish life.
    "...
    The Sea seems as barren of fish for we could not catch any altho we try'd in several places with hook and line and it was very little we saw among the Natives.... "
    Thursday 17th March 1774

    http://www.captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/march-1774-off-easter-island
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    Captain Cook made similar comments about the native peoples of what he termed "Poverty Bay" here in NZ. Yet neither the bay, nor the people were particularly poverty stricken. Another tribe, of similar way of life, lived in an area he termed "Bay of Plenty" because they were more friendly and generous. Ironically, before artificial fertilisers, the soils of the Bay of Plenty, being based on volcanic ash, were among the most impoverished in the country.

    Captain Cook's journals were not always terribly accurate. If the Rapanui people were that unhealthy, starved, and few in number, then why did the later arrivals cart off literally thousands of them as slaves?
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    >> A lot of people have claimed that the Rapanui caused their own downfall through a kind of 'ecocide'.

    They did cut down every single tree on the island. Whatever else happened, they did that. Slavers didn’t do that.

    At some point, there was a guy who looked at the last big tree on the island, and thought, “*uck it”, and cut it down.


    They did eat their way down the food chain. All the way down. Until, according to the latest revisionist, they were living off rats.


    At one point every single stone head was toppled during inter-clan conflict. (They even layed out sharp stones under where they knew the Moai would fall – to ensure maximum destruction of the enemy tribe’s token). Literally, every single one. (The upright Moai you see now are re-erections).


    “Easter” Island is how I know humanity is not going to make it.
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    Certainly they cut down the trees. I doubt they were dependant on eating rats, though, though they probably ate them, and with great pleasure. Lots of human cultures eat rats. Many tribes in Indonesia today eat rats, for example. They are, after all, bundles of protein. The thing about the Rapanui people, is that they had abundant root crops.
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  10. #9  
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    Even root vegetables need fertile soil; most of the fertile soil washed out to sea centuries before the Europeans arrived.
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  11. #10  
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    The Maori people of my country grew taro. The temperature here is way too cold to grow taro. To get round that, they prepared circles of basalt rock to absorb the sun's heat, and transfer it to the soil, and put compost into the centre of that circle,. within which they grew taro. Lots of work, but also lots of taro.

    I cannot believe that the peoples of Rapanui, with a whole island to work with, could not grow root vegetables. I have grown sweet potato myself in a bucket. Give the Polynesian people a bit of credit for knowing how to grow crops.
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  12. #11  
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    Look at the historical sources, as reported by White travelers. They describe the state of the Island in it's various stages. Yes, rats.
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