Skip to content

The Flesh of Your Mother Sticks Between My Teeth

May 12, 2009

“The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth”

–A common taunt passed down through the oral traditions of the Rapa Nui Islanders

People tend to eat people when they are starving to death.  Frightening, but true.  Jared Diamond parallels the decline of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) with current global ecological degradation trends. A brief history starting in 900 AD:

  • 900: 20-30 people from Polynesia’s Pitcairn Islands intentionally sail 1,300 to Easter Island in small vessels that seat 5-9 people (miraculous isn’t it?)
  • 900: Overall, Rapa Nui was a sufficient but not optimal location for human civilization. The island was a little colder, dryer, and lower than most islands in the Pacific. The colder water provided it only 127 fish species (vs. 1,000 in Figi.) It had sufficient fresh water reserves, but not as much as other Pacific islands.    Easter Island was flush with trees, and had diverse mix of land birds and seabirds.  However, it didn’t have indigenous mammals (But the colonists populated the island with chickens, dogs, pigs, and rats.)
  • 900-1200: They built up to a population of 7,000 and subsisted primarily on chicken, rats, sweet potato, taro, and banana.  They also ate some shell fish and porpoise, seabirds, and land birds.  They also began to form into loosely federated tribes on the island with relative peace that cooperated but competed with one another.
  • 1300: Villagers began constructing the enormous statues the island is famous for.  The statues (moai) average 13 feet tall and weighed 10 tons.  However the biggest moai was 32 feet tall and weighed 75 tons. More striking the statues bases (ahu) ranged from 300 to 9,000 tons. All of this rock was in a singular quarry, and was transported up to 1-9 miles to their end destinations at the shores.
  • 1300: Villagers transported these enormous rocks by felling 75 foot palm trees and creating a roller device to move them accross the island
  • 1300-1550: Village chiefs become increasingly competitive and raced to build bigger Moai and more of them. In the process, they devastated the land
  • 1600: The last and largest Moai is built
  • 1600: The last palm tree is felled
  • 1600-1730: The tiny islands spirals into anarchy; the chiefs are overthrown, religion is abandoned, and people kill and eat each other, and then starve to death.

Think about what the villages couldn’t do after they cut down their last tree.

They couldn’t:

  • Make Boats to fish for 160 pound, protein rich porpoises (and other large sea creatures)
  • Make homes to protect themselves from the elements
  • Make fires to keep warm and cook food
  • Make ropes, fishing nets and other tools
  • Make clothes
  • Eat fruits from the trees

Eliminating the palm trees created other ecological problems:

  • Soil erosion lowered their other crop yields
  • Extinction of many land birds and seabirds
  • Unsustainable harvesting of remaining trees, bushes, and shrubs

What do you think the villagers were thinking when they cut their last tree down?

I found this to be an eye opening mental exercise.  My concerns over water pollution, overfishing, CO2 emissions, erosion, deforestation, etc became a lot more urgent after reading this story of how an economically successful, politically organized, culturally rich civilization destroyed itself in the matter of a few hundred years through greedy actions and poor foresight. It was a call to action for me, to learn more about the green movement, and figure out what I can do to lead a change.

Learn more at Wikipedia, Collapse, Big History, and Green History of the World by Clive Ponting



No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: