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Economic and Social History Blog

50. Claiming Easter Island (26-5-2020)

Claiming Easter Island (26-5-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

An island again. Perhaps the most famous island ‘discovered’ by the Dutch, Easter island in the middle of the Pacific, accidentally ‘found’ by Jacobus Roggeveen and his crew on April 5, Easter Sunday, on a trip to explore Terra Australis. They came in contact with the inhabitants of the island, got some fresh supplies there, and then left for their real destination. It is a mystery that Polynesians had found the small island (the size of Texel), which was at a huge distance – more than 2000 km – from the nearest inhabited other island (which is also minute). Roggeveen noticed the impressive statues (Moia) that are the trademark of the island.

Easter Island has become a symbol of environmental collapse. Clive Ponting in his pioneering ‘Green History of the World’ uses the reconstructed story of its civilization as the ‘model’ for what was and is happening on a global scale. Jared Diamond developed this parable further, which became the cornerstone of his analysis of the Collapse of societies due to environmental stress and mismanagement. Their story is that when the first Polynesians arrived – probably at about 1200 AD – the island was covered with forest and had a stable eco-system. The population started to grow, reclaim the forests, and they developed a culture in which the Moia played a central role. Gradually the forest area declined – because more land was necessary for agriculture, and there was also a big demand for timber to transport the statues from the quarries to the places near the coast where they were displayed. At some point the population had grown to about 10,000 to perhaps as much as 20,000, but the resulting deforestation and overexploitation of the land eventually led to declining production of food. Marine, fish resources were similarly overexploited. This gave rise to a huge societal crisis, the polity collapsed, civil war became the normal state of affairs and the building of the Moia suddenly stopped, which still can be seen in the quarry, which has many unfinished statues. On a small scale, the environmental crisis of Easter Island was exemplary of the big environmental crisis the earth is facing.

This is a strong story about the collapse of a society due to environmental problems which had an immediate appeal. But did it fit the facts, as they can be reconstructed from historical documents?  Jan Boersema, an environmental scientist from the Free University (later Leiden), was the first to really study them with these questions in mind, to find out what had really happened. Roggeveen did in his log report about a relatively prosperous, well fed, population, which was interested in trading foodstuffs for the western products that the expedition had taken with them. Agriculture was productive and the food supply did not appear to be a problem, nor were there signs of internal warfare going on. Probably Roggeveen and his crew witnessed the last rituals of the old, Moia-based, religion, whereas at the time a new religion – related to the ‘birdman’ – was becoming dominant (explaining that they stopped making big statues). The size of the population of the island in 1722 can according to Boersema be estimated at a stable maximum of 2000 to 3000, which is much less than the 10 to 20,000 that has been estimated as the pre collapse level. He argues that these extremely high estimates are all highly speculative and probably incorrect. There was of course the issue of deforestation, but archaeological research has shown that the agricultural system was probably more flexible than previously assumed.

Jan Boersema rejects the highly pessimistic interpretation of Easter island, and is much more positive about the possibilities of societies to adapt to environmental problems, also following Ostrom’s ideas about the ways in which societies can manage commons. He earned a honourable mention in Bregman’s book on ‘de meeste mensen deugen’. He is disappointed, however, that Jared Diamond never responded to his criticism and alternative interpretation. I have great respect for Diamond, but it worries me that he simply ignores such fundamental criticism – it probably means that Jan Boersema has a real point.

Continue reading: No blog today (27-5-2020)


Clive Ponting, A green history of the world. The environment and the Collapse of Great Civilisations. Penguin 1993.

Jared Diamond, Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin 2005.

Jan Boersema, Beelden van Paaseiland. Over de duurzaamheid van een cultuur. Atlas, Amsterdam.