Rats Destroyed the Forests on Easter Island: Terry Hunt

Easter Island has been described by Jared Diamond as the “clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources”.

Prof Diamond has told and retold the story and drawn a parallel between the ecological disaster he says befell Easter Island and our likely fate because we are cutting down too many trees and consuming too much energy.

In the September-October issue of American Scientist Online Terry Hunt details findings from his work on Easter Island.

It is an interesting read in which Hunt concludes that rats introduced by the Polynesians negatively impacted on recruitment in Jubaea palms resulting in forest decline. In contrast, Jared Diamond says the Polynesians simply cut down all the trees.

Furthermore Hunt suggests that the downfall of the original Polynesian civilization resulted not from internal strife associated with ecological disaster following destruction of the forest, but rather from contact with Europeans.

I read a lot of James Michener books when I was a bit younger. Civilizations destroyed by new arrivals is a consistent theme in Michener’s stories.

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15 Responses to Rats Destroyed the Forests on Easter Island: Terry Hunt

  1. Schiller Thurkettle August 29, 2006 at 9:45 am #

    “Civilizations destroyed by new arrivals” is precisely why we must preserve the entire planet as a museum; preferably as it was somewhere in the past, if we can possibly achieve that. Back when everything was in harmony with nature. Back when xenophobia was righteous and miscegenation between races was prosecuted. Not.

    When people tout biodiversity, it often turns out to be a claim that one biodiversity is better than another biodiversity.

    Whenever you see the word “biodiversity,” you can generally exchange it with “racial purity” or “Blut und Boden” and it will all come out to mean the same thing. Anti-globalism as a global movement. Freedom as trade protectionism. Natural species as unnatural. Emigration as evil. The “planned ecology.” Basically, Fascism wearing a green shirt.

    Should we blame Polynesians, or rats, or both? Is the “invasion” of either inherently bad? There are some pernicious presuppositions at work here.

    Consider “Fascist Ecology: The ‘Green Wing’ of the Nazi Party and its Historical Antecedents,” at http://www.spunk.org/texts/places/germany/sp001630/peter.html

  2. Luke August 29, 2006 at 10:07 am #

    Schills mate – we might ponder the impacts of cats and foxes on Australian native marsupials. One size does not necessarily fit all.

    Your credentials to undertake this tiresome anti-green tirade about eco-fascism is fascinating as an essay in hypocrisy given you’ve lived your life in a agri-chemical soup protected by a government with massively protectionist trade policies and whose approach to international diplomacy is increasingly military force (when it suits – see exceptions for recent conflict intervention).

    And you have the hide to about biodiversity (used to be called native wildlife – with some aspects of a functioning natural system) when you’ve systematically poisoned your own for decades. I think we know who has the fascist tendencies. Whatever the science see Easter Island as an example of limits to growth, unchecked population dynamics or encounter with a superior technology.

    Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. (George Santayana)

  3. Schiller Thurkettle August 29, 2006 at 10:35 am #


    You are so totally busted. You posted before you had time to read the text at that link. But I *do* appreciate how you have reinforced my point with your remarks.

  4. Ian Mott August 29, 2006 at 11:25 am #

    That Easter Island stuff always had the ring of bull$hit about it because the explanation, that man cut it all down, assumed that there was no such thing as seedling regrowth. And it maintained this assumption not just for the existing forests and their seed sources but for all subsequent seed supply from ocean drift etc.

    My overly neurotic Kelpie has just eaten through a healthy 16 year old Palm Tree at ground level, munching through 35cm of trunk in a few days. So hungry rats on a Coconut diet is a highly probable explanation. Science 1, Bimbecology nil.

  5. Luke August 29, 2006 at 11:39 am #

    I did read it Schills – good grief. You need to get out more. Acthung baby.

  6. Davey Gam Esq. August 29, 2006 at 12:28 pm #

    Sounds as if Easter Island needed a few ships’ cats.

  7. coby August 29, 2006 at 3:01 pm #

    Jared Diamond’s narative did also involve rats, as the explanation for inhibited regrowth. I look forward to learning from how this plays out in the science arena, but it is just one paper, isn’t it?

    It has put the Easter Island history I thought was well accepted into a kind of mental holding pattern for me, but there certainly were questions that paper did not answer and assumptions of its own that did not seem well founded. Plus, comments from the authors that suggested a conclusion looking for evidence.

    Anyway, as I said I look forward to how the story developes and not being a producer of research myself, will accept whatever consensus eventually emerges.

  8. taust August 29, 2006 at 7:52 pm #

    Can any one tell me why given the evident desirability of the mixing of humans from different continents the mixing of all other forms of life among the different continents is considered a very bad thing? After all the non-mixed distribution of species was largely a outcome of chance.

  9. Russell August 29, 2006 at 8:11 pm #

    Fair enough question Taust.
    I remeber complaining to a chinese friend about flying into Irian Jaya from Java with a plane load of Javanese mine workers returning from holidays with plastic bags full of water and snakefish as handluggage because they liked them to eat and they were not native to Irian Jaya. She asked why does it matter, aren’t they good to eat, and so what if they eradicate the local fish -most of which are endemic to the region?
    For me that diversity was important for her not -depends on what you think is important.

  10. Siltstone August 29, 2006 at 10:18 pm #

    Incisive question Taust. The “desirability of the mixing of humans from different continents” was not always seen as that…ie “desirable”. It still isn’t in many places, at least when not in proportion. Russell has seen the introduction of new fish species into Irian Jaya. Once I saw the introduction of Javanese transmigrants into Irian Jaya. The recieving population were not too impressed. But in the end they were in a similar position as endemic fish. They had to adapt. Nothing would ever be the same again. Is this called evolution?

  11. Luke August 29, 2006 at 10:30 pm #

    Taust – sometimes the results are benign, or natural systems make way to feed the world, sometimes the zebra trample the penguins, sometimes an AIDS superbug develops and we all die. Meddle with millions of years of coevolution in just 10,000 years and we call it the 21st century. The ability to think about the nature of things sets us apart but not always in control.

  12. Russell August 30, 2006 at 12:16 am #

    When I was not wading around in streams collecting fish and other things in Irian Jaya I too noticed the impact of transmigration.
    However, why is biodiversity important?
    I can only put my own perspective on that, others will have to say why its important to them personally – or not important.
    When I look at natural systems I am always impressed at how many different types of organisms and species can co-exist in these systems. By contrast our own constructed and modified systems are always much poorer – in terms of the different species supported and serves to remind us how much we have yet to learn.
    I also enjoy the beauty of natural systems and spend as much time as possible in them -although I don’t want to go butt naked back into the woods on a permanent basis.
    There are also the anthropocentric arguments which suggest that all species should be thoroughly checked to determine their utility to humans before being discarded or ignored.
    Personally I tend to think of us as stewards of life on Earth, and if we are as technologically advanced as we believe then it ought to be possible to revere all life on the planet and make a place for it – a sort of modern Noahs Ark approach.
    The philosophical basis of this is a belief that ultimately everything on this planet are our closest living relatives, and we ought to feel at least some responsibility at this time of our supremacy.

  13. Graham Finlayson August 30, 2006 at 3:14 pm #

    Hey Russell,
    I don’t get on this blog all that often. For what it’s worth I think you make more sense than most.
    Natural systems are far more complex than the vast majority can comprehend, and the smarter we get, the more we are realising that we don’t know all that much at all.
    Certainly not about the important interactions between the life systems that sustain us anyhow.
    The excuse chasers and proponents for chemical reliant (less is not good enough) of industrialised agriculture will beg to differ of course.
    Jared Dimond and Allan Savory are closer to the mark I think, which also allows us a clear and succesful way forward.
    We just need the will.
    This will happen by us either gaining more understanding first or alternately having to respond to disaster later on.

  14. Schiller Thurkettle August 31, 2006 at 11:04 am #

    Well folks,

    Seems like we have a consensus. Everything and everyone should be sent back to where they came from and then everything will be the way it should be.

    Is that right?

  15. Ian Mott August 31, 2006 at 1:28 pm #

    Diamond did the usual sleaze by adding a minor reference to a more likely scenario to allow him to claim that his appocalyptic main theme was “balanced”. What a shonk.

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