The Polynesian colonization of the Pacific was one of the most significant achievements in human history. The homogeneous Polynesian people originated in Taiwan over 6,000 years ago. By 1500 B.C.E., they had migrated to Indonesia then eastward to New Zealand, Tonga, Tahiti, Hawaii, and finally to Easter Island, the eastern most outpost of the culture. By the time European explorers entered the Pacific in the 16th Century, almost all of the inhabitable islands had been settled for hundreds of years.
Until the last 20 years, most scientists believed that the Pacific island people had only a small environmental effect on the natural habitats; and that drastic changes were due to the more recent actions of European colonizers. This turns out to be inaccurate. More recent research is showing that the Polynesians had been altering their environments in major ways well before the arrival of the Europeans. Deforestation and forced animal extinction were much more common than originally thought.
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.
One of the most studied Pacific cultures was on Easter Island. The island, also referred to as Rapa Nui, lies 2,000 miles west of Chile and is 1,300 miles from the nearest other Polynesian island. It is best known for the huge stone statues that were carved in a volcanic quarry, dragged about 12 miles to the coast, and then raised vertically onto platforms. Some weigh as much as 80 tons. The Islanders had no machines, pulleys, or draught animals to assist them. Why the statues were built is still largely unknown.
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.
The Easter Island civilization collapsed 300 years ago due to human environmental damage. There was no other Pacific culture located close enough to interact with the Easter Islanders so their rise and fall was theirs alone. So what caused this ecological and sociological disaster?
When the Polynesian settlers first arrived 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.
Ultimately, they turned to the largest animal left to eat on the island - other humans. Cannibalism reached epidemic proportions. The societal structure collapsed. Small groups warred against each other. People moved into caves for protection.
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.
Polynesian groups on other islands did persevere without interruption for 3,600 years without any sign of decline. Many of those were isolated as well (although none as completely as Easter Island). Some avoided deforestation by abandoning the slash and burn method of land clearance. Others focused on cultivating garden plots and relied less on animal consumption, or learned to irrigate their fields. Still others attempted to limit their population growth.
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.