Did anyone watch last night’s Easter Island Underworld on SBS? I did. I endured a whole hour of B-grade horror movie sound effects, recycled footage, and uninspired reenactments because a documentary was preferable to the reality TV rubbish being aired on another channel. Plus who doesn’t get excited about a history lesson that involves claustrophobic caves, cannibalism, and ecocide?
To spare everyone else of having to watch Easter Island Underworld, I will summarise its contents. The documentary follows researchers Claudio Cristino, Sergio Rapu and Terry Hunt as they explore the island’s lava-tube cave system, which was used by the island’s inhabitants as a place of refuge. ‘Refuge from what’ is Easter Island Underground’s angle and it lists diminishing resources, cannibalism and threats from outsiders as the driving factors.
When the first Polynesians settled on Easter Island, it was a tropical paradise. Large palm trees provided the shade and shelter that small plants and animals required. Unfortunately, the settlers, who would be later known as Moai, liked to erect giant stone statues of their ancestors and required large numbers of tree trunks to move the things.
During this period, rodents unintentionally introduced by the settlers became endemic on the island. They prevented regrowth by eating all of the sugary palm-tree seeds. This combination led to the island’s complete deforestation.
Without palm trees, the Moai could not build boats to fish or leave the island. The exposed land became too salty for crops; fruit and vegetables could only be grown in sink holes. The Moai gradually ate all of the land birds and most of the sea birds that nested on the island to extinction. As food became scarce, some turned to cannibalism and clans started hiding underground. After the introduction of smallpox, syphilis and other diseases, the Moai were nearly wiped out.
In hindsight, the decline of the Moai civilisation seems inevitable. Of course deforestation would prevent the Moai from escaping Easter Island, as well as endangering limited food resources. But as they cut down the trees, did the Moai realise that they were sowing the seeds of their own destruction? Were they ignorant or just in denial? As Cheap Geek would often say, it’s ‘a little bit from column A, a little bit from column B’.
It is said that history repeats. As the human population increases and consumes its resources at an unsustainable rate*, it is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ resources will run out. Meanwhile, colonisation of other planets are still a sci-fi nerd’s wet dream. Easter Island is a cautionary tale that we all should take note. In other words, it’s mustbethrifty time.
* ‘As the global population grows from 7 billion to almost 9 billion by 2040…the demand for resources will rise exponentially. By 2030, the world will need at least 50 per cent more food, 45 per cent more energy and 30 per cent more water — all at a time when environmental boundaries are throwing up new limits to supply…We can no longer assume that our collective actions will not trigger tipping points as environmental thresholds are breached, risking irreversible damage to both ecosystems and human communities…if we fail to resolve the sustainable development dilemma, we run the risk of condemning up to 3 billion members of our human family to a life of endemic poverty’ (excerpt taken from ‘Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A future worth choosing’, the UN’s 2012 report on sustainability).