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Genocide, Not Ecocide

Environmentalists (most notably, recently, Jared Diamond) are fond of using Easter Island as a cautionary tale of what happens when resources are depleted in a non-renewable manner. Well, it's looking a lot like this example is a fairy tale:

By the time the second round of radiocarbon results arrived in the fall of 2005, a complete picture of Rapa Nui's prehistory was falling into place. The first settlers arrived from other Polynesian islands around 1200 A.D. Their numbers grew quickly, perhaps at about three percent annually, which would be similar to the rapid growth shown to have taken place elsewhere in the Pacific. On Pitcairn Island, for example, the population increased by about 3.4 percent per year following the appearance of the Bounty mutineers in 1790. For Rapa Nui, three percent annual growth would mean that a colonizing population of 50 would have grown to more than a thousand in about a century. The rat population would have exploded even more quickly, and the combination of humans cutting down trees and rats eating the seeds would have led to rapid deforestation. Thus, in my view, there was no extended period during which the human population lived in some sort of idyllic balance with the fragile environment.

It also appears that the islanders began building moai and ahu soon after reaching the island. The human population probably reached a maximum of about 3,000, perhaps a bit higher, around 1350 A.D. and remained fairly stable until the arrival of Europeans. The environmental limitations of Rapa Nui would have kept the population from growing much larger. By the time Roggeveen arrived in 1722, most of the island's trees were gone, but deforestation did not trigger societal collapse, as Diamond and others have argued.

I'm sure that the argument now will be that they were about to collapse any year now, but the evil white men killed them before they had a chance to.


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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on August 18, 2006 10:51 AM.

Having It Both Ways? was the previous entry in this blog.

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