The origin and demise of civilizations and states

The Lorax: I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. And I’m asking you sir, at the top of my lungs – that thing! That horrible thing that I see! What’s that thing you’ve made out of my truffula tree? The Once-ler: Look, Lorax, calm down. There’s no cause for alarm. I chopped just one tree, I’m doing no harm. This thing is most useful! This thing is a “thneed.”

Seuss, 1972

22nd October 2010

Finding its origin in the essay on ‘principles of population’, Malthus writes that while agriculture increases linearly, population increases geometrically (Tainter, 2006, p60). This means that left unchecked the population of any given civilization will eventually overshoot the available supply of food generated by its ecosystem, and that the overpopulation of the region causing mass consumption of resources leads inevitably to their depletion. To put this simply it means the overexploitation of natural resources through either population growth or increased per capita consumption causes a depletion of available resources, land degradation and damage to the environment which are the primary causes of collapse.

According to Tainter, Malthus was influenced by Wallace when, in 1761, he argued that progress would undermine itself by filling the world with people (Tainter, 2006, p. 60). The concept was systematized by Catton (1980) in Overshoot: The Revolutionary Basis of Ecological Change where Catton defines overshoot as an increase in population so great that the ecological load, which must in time decrease accordingly, exceeds the habitat’s carrying capacity, the condition of having exceeded for the time being the permanent carrying capacity of the habitat (Catton, 1980, p. 278). The concept of overshoot clearly depends on that of carrying capacity, which Catton defines as, the maximum population of a given species that a particular habitat can support indefinitely (Catton, 1980, p. 272), under specified technology and organization, in the case of the human species. Similarly, Tainter defines ‘overshoot’ as the outcome when a trajectory is unsustainable for environment, technology or social reasons and ‘collapse’ as the rapid loss of an established level of social, political, or economic complexity. (Tainter, 2006, p60) Diamond explicitly defines collapse, giving priority to population in stating that, “by collapse, I mean a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time” (Diamond, 2005, p. 3, Tainter, 2006).

Regardless of the civilization or society, an ability to produce a food surplus that supports an elite class of people is a requirement (Feder, 2010, p552). Humans require a constant supply of food, water and resources for their survival and it is through agricultural processes that allow this to happen. As humans developed more efficient farming techniques, their ability to produce a food surplus allowed for populations to rapidly expand. Unfortunately, expansion creates additional logistical complexities and difficulties in maintaining the growing high demands required to supply large populations. This often results in intensification of agricultural activities before finally, if left unmonitored, leading to land degradation and damage to the environment which in turn depleted these valuable resources to the point where the society collapses.

Discovered by the Dutch explorer, Admiral Jakob Roggeveen on Easter day, 1722. Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, was the home to a civilization that arose far from any current human hub. With an area of only 163 square kilometers, it is the world’s most isolated habitable land. It lies in the Pacific Ocean approximately 3,600 kilometers west of the nearest continent (South America), 2,200 kilometers from even the nearest habitable island (Pitcairn) and is primarily pastoral. Its subtropical location and latitude of 27 degrees south give it a mild climate, while its volcanic origins make its soil fertile. In theory, this combination should have made Easter Island a miniature paradise, far removed from problems that plague the rest of the world. However, the story of Easter Island, much like a pre industrialized version of the Dr. Seuss’ story, The Lorax, began with the migration of people to an area of high natural resources, which during the course of time are exploited with little consideration for the fragile ecosystem in which they are produced. Once the area is devoid of the resources required to maintain the population, they either moves on or perish.

Less than a thousand years ago, the island supported a tropical palm forest, dominated by a now-extinct palm that is related to the Chilean wine-palm (Flenley & King, 1984) as well as numerous species of both land and sea birds (Brander and Taylor, 1998 p.121). In the case of Easter Island, archeological evidence suggests Polynesians first settled on the island around 400 A.D. having navigated in canoes or catamarans from the Marquises Islands, 3,200 km away, or the Gambier Islands (Mangareva, 2,600 km) away, arrived on the Island where they thrived for several hundred years. We do not know exactly when Easter Island first became occupied, however Flenley and Bahn site the date and A.D 690 +/- 130 years (Flenley and Bahn, 2002, p.77). Archeological digs and carbon dated pollens obtained from core samples revealed that when Polynesians settled there, palm forests covered the island (Brander and Taylor, 1998 p.121).

Most settlements were located on the coast and the people of the island carved many huge statues, called moai, which remain as sentinels on the island today. The moai were erected all along the coastline, watching over their descendants in the settlements, with their backs toward the spirit world in the sea. Vast amounts of time, energy, resources and labor went into erecting each of the stone statues that remain. However the construction of these monuments came with a price, due to their over use of resources, most specifically the intensive use of trees in the form of wood for moving them from the building site to their individual positions around the island and their support platforms. Hundreds of these giant statues were found lining the shore, each weighing up to eighty-five tons each and standing over 7 meters high. The people of Easter Island had carved about a thousand statues in total but less that 400 had been erected. They were carved from volcanic quarries located at different points around the island and transported several miles to their resting points. Once there, they were raised to the upright position on wooden platforms. A people who had no metal tools, wheels or source of power other than human muscle achieved this. Many more statues were discovered unfinished in the volcanic island quarries or were found finished but abandoned somewhere between the quarries and their platform.

Over time the islands forests were also cleared to provide agricultural fields for raising cocks and to obtain logs for canoes, used for fishing. Eventually the continuously increasing population of Easter Island was clearing land and vegetation more rapidly than the forests were able to regenerate. As forests continued to disappear, the islanders ran out of logs and rope to transport and erect their statues. Daily life too, became more uncomfortable, springs, streams and water holes dried up, and as wood was no longer available or in short supply materials to burn for fires were also limited. By 1400 A.D the population of this 160 square kilometer island is thought to have reached its peak which was estimated to have reached 10,000 (Brander and Taylor, 1998 p.121) though could have been as high as 15,000 inhabitants (Diamond 2005, p. 91) and in doing so depleted the natural resources required to sustain habitation. The forests were gradually decimated to the point where eventually, the last tree was cut down. In 1995 Diamond posed the question, ‘What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it’? (Diamond, 1995, 2005, p. 114) As resources were depleted the construction of statues ceased.

The combination of increasing population and resources diminishment meant that the people of Easter Island could no longer feed the chiefs, bureaucrats, and priests who had kept a complex society running and warriors known as matatoa gained more power effectively ending the Ancestor Cult. This made way for the Bird Man Cult. The common population also found it harder to meet their food requirements, as land birds, large sea snails, and many seabirds disappeared. Following this because timber for building seagoing canoes had been vastly depleted, fish catches declined and porpoise meat which had been the islanders principle meat all but disappeared from their diet. Crop yields was also affected negatively, since deforestation allowed the soil to be eroded by rain and wind, dried by the sun, and its nutrients to be leeched from it. An increase in chicken production and to a lesser extent cannibalism replaced only part of the food requirements lost. Preserved statuettes with sunken cheeks and visible ribs suggest that people were starving (Diamond, 2006).

The fifteenth century resulted in not only the felling of the last of Easter Islands palm trees but also the end of the forests as a whole. According to Diamond, pollen records show that destruction of Easter Islands forests were advancing rapidly by the year 800, just a few centuries after the start of human settlement. (Diamond, 1995). As the people cleared more and more land to plant gardens, build canoes, to transport and erect their statues they also continued to burn increasing amounts of wood as fuel for their fires. They also failed to notice that rats devoured many of the seeds necessary for forest regrowth as the native birds that had pollinated the trees’ flowers and dispersed their fruit had either died out or been hunted to extinction. The painted here is perhaps one the most devastating examples of ecological neglect and forest destruction anywhere in the world. Diamond writes that the whole forest gone, and most of its tree species extinct. (Diamond, 1995)

The ensuing destruction of the island’s animal life was as total as that of the forest. Every species of land bird became native to the island became extinct and those non-native were hunted until none remained. Even shellfish and other forms of marine life were exploited. Porpoise bones noticeably disappeared from middens dating after around 1500, since the wood required for the construction of seagoing canoes no longer existed, it was impossible to hunt porpoises. In addition to the destruction wrought directly on the island, more than half of the seabird species breeding on Easter Island or on its offshore islets were wiped out.

In place of these more traditional meat supplies, the Islanders increases their consumption of chicken, which had been, until then only an occasional food source. Archeological findings revealed that as forests disappeared, the once advanced island society regressed into small communal warring factions, fighting clan wars amongst themselves over the little remaining resources prior to a period of sharp social decline. A more warlike warrior class replaced the previously artistic and peace-loving society. Surviving Islands relayed to early European visitors how, with the consumption of the remaining food surpluses, how localized chaos replaced what had been before, a centralized government and how the warrior class took over from the hereditary chiefs. Following they also resorted to consumption of the only large remaining meat source available: humans. Human bones became a common feature in later Easter Island middens. Oral traditions and histories of the islanders are filled with stories of cannibalism. According to Diamond, the most inflammatory taunt that could be snarled at an enemy was “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth (Diamond, 2005).”. These clan wars resulted in the toppling and destruction of many of the moai and the defeated were either enslaved or eaten. Rival clans pulled down each other’s statues, and people abandoned their open homes, taking to cave dwelling for the purpose of self-preservation. Diamond sums this up simply in saying that when “people inadvertently destroying the environmental resources on which their societies depended . . .. Unsustainable practices led to environmental damage . . .. Consequences for society included food shortages, starvation, wars among too many people fighting over too few resources, and overthrows of governing elites by disillusioned masses” (Diamond, 2005)

By around the beginning of the 18th Century, the population began to fall rapidly, declining to between one-quarter and one-tenth of its former number (Diamond, 1995). Mc Coy writes that late in the island’s occupation there was conflict over land, and defeated people risked dispossession or enslavement. Many people began living in fortified caves as a means of protection from their enemies. Later in the 18th Century, perhaps around 1770, warring clans began to “throw down” each other’s statues, breaking the heads off. By 1864 the last statue had been toppled, smashed, broken and desecrated. The stone points of spears and daggers, made by the warriors during the clan war years between the 1600s and 1700s, still litter the ground of Easter Island today. Late middens of this period have been shown to contain a high frequency of fractured and charred human remains, many of these from juveniles. This is frequently interpreted as cannibalism (McCoy, 1979 in Tainter, 2006) and could also be attributed as a likely cause to the rapid decline of population towards the final decades of civilization but more likely as a result of already shortening food supplies. In the 19th century, smallpox brought by explorers, raids by slave ships, and tuberculosis brought by a missionary resulted in a finite ending to the already declining civilization.

In a collection of recent studies, led by Dr Troy Baisden an environmental scientist working for GNS Science and Dr Mark Horrocks, a plant ecologist from Microfossil Research Ltd, evidence suggests that the population of Easter Island overshot the capacity of their aged and weathered volcanic soils to be able to support their number. They claim that collapse on Easter Island (Rapa Nui) was inevitable. Dr Baisden goes on to say that often the most valuable possession of ancient civilizations was their soil. “Easter Island developed a remarkable agricultural civilization that was capable of erecting stone statues weighing up to 80 tones each. However, while the clans on Easter Island were competing to build the most impressive statues, it is suspected their populations overshot the carrying capacity of their fragile soils.” (GSN Science, 2008) Dr Baisden and his colleagues believe it is possible that soil nutrient depletion coincided with the island’s population reaching a maximum. Ecological and social collapse was the ultimate consequence. Deforestation was the cause of extensive soil erosion, which reduced both crop production, and the ability of the forest to regenerate wood supplies. This once advanced, thriving island society, was eventually reduced to slightly over one hundred people. The island itself never recovered. It remains barren grassland littered with fallen statues.

From these strands of evidence we can gain a broad picture of the society on Easter Islands origin, rise, decline and fall over a period of less than 2000 years. The first colonists, likely from Polynesia, found themselves on an island far removed form contact with other civilizations. They possessed fertile soil, an ample food surplus and an abundance building materials. They possessed all the requirements for comfortable living allowing them to prosper and develop. However like Persia, Greece, Rome and many other great civilizations of the past, the over expansion of the human population caused destruction of the environment resulting in the decline and eventual break down of society. While tyranny, war and human exploitation frequently brought about the downfall of a civilization, agricultural abuse and erosion resulting from deforestation can often be found to be far more important factors in shaping the progress of any civilization.


Brander, J.A. & Taylor M.S. 1998, The American Economic Review, The Simple Economics of Easter Island: A Ricardo-Malthus Model of Renewable Resource Use, pp. 119-138, [online]

Catton, W.R, 1982, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, Illini Books, United States

Diamond, J. 1995, Easter’s End, [online]

Diamond J.D. 2005, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Viking Books, New York, USA

Fagan, B. 2001, People of the Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, USA

Feder, K. L. 2010, The past in perspective, an introduction to human prehistory, Oxford University Press, New York, USA

Flenley, J. & King, S. 1984. Nature, Late Quaternary pollen records from Easter Island. Issue 307 pp. 47–

Flenley, J. & Bahn, P. 2002, The Enigmas of Easter Island, 2nd edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK

GNS Science, 2008, Media Release: 25 September 2008, Scientists to probe mysterious demise of Easter Islanders [online]

Pelta, K. 2001, Rediscovering Easter Island, Learner Publications, Minneapolis, USA

Pezzey J.C.V & Anderiesy J.M, 2000, Some further economics of Easter Island: Subsistence and the evolution of resource conservatism, Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies Australian National University Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia [online]

Seuss, T.G. 1971 The Lorax, Random House
Tainter J.A, 2000, Population and Environment, Problem solving: complexity, history, sustainability, Issue 22 pp. 3-41

Tainter J.A, 2006, Annual Review: Anthropology, Archaeology of Overshoot and Collapse, Issue 35 pp. 59-74 [online]

Upshur, Terry, Holoka, Goff & Cassar, 2005, World History: Compact 4th Edition, Thomson Advantage, Belmont, CA, USA




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