With migration Polynesian cultures became more specialized which extended to their relationship with the natural environment. This diversification is seen as related to the extreme distances between islands and the different types of island geologic formation (which allowed different types of vegetation to exist). Each island developed its unique culture in response to the different environments and the resources available.
Today, Easter Island is a barren place. Once a tropical forest, there are no native trees remaining. At the time of the Polynesian settlement about 800 C.E., there were at least 43 species of land and sea birds; the largest number known on any Pacific island. The
population reached as high as 15,000 people but had declined to 2,000 by the
arrival of Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday in 1722. He
witnessed the islanders toppling over some of their revered statues.
When the Polynesian settlers first arrive there, they began to clear the forest for their gardens, canoes, and firewood. They also used tree trunks as rollers to move the giant statues from the quarry to the coast. Agriculture was limited, so they fed on the available birds and on the porpoise and tuna in surrounding waters. Over the generations, the deforestation and reduction of animal stocks had consequences for the people. Without trees they could not transport their statues, so they stopped carving them. They had little firewood for warmth and cooking. With the trees removed, they had no way to stop soil erosion. The absence of wood also meant that they couldn’t build adequate canoes to venture out into the ocean to catch fish.
The collapse of the Easter Island civilization was due to both environmental and human factors. The island did have less rainfall than others, cooler temperatures (due to its latitude), and almost no water runoff from higher elevations. But the key factor in initiating the sequence of events that brought down the society was the human action that removed the trees. Once gone they could not be regenerated.
The people on Easter Island, once events spiraled out of control, had no means of leaving the island to escape their fate. They had no way of saving their island paradise. When their society collapsed, no one else in the world took notice and no one else was affected. A paradise was lost.