Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Collapse II

Although I'm not exactly speeding through this book, I am finding it interesting and informative. The next chapters cover four islands in eastern Polynesia. I was particularly interested in Easter Island, because I read Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl, many years ago. With its unusual statues, Easter Island has long been the subject of fanciful speculation. Now, after years of painstaking archaeological and anthropological research, a much more accurate picture of the island's history has emerged, and this is a testament to the value of the plodding work of scientists.

It appears that Polynesians first arrived at Easter Island in about 900 A.D. They were skilled at island-hopping, and ordinarily they would travel between islands after they had settled on a new one. However, in this case, because of the island's remote location, they had little or no contact with outsiders until 1722, when Europeans discovered it. At that time the population was estimated to have been about 2,000. Research indicates that there had been wide fluctuations in the population over time. Once there may have been 15,000 inhabitants. After several bouts of introduced smallpox and the kidnapping of islanders by Peruvian slave-traders, the population was reduced to 111 in 1872.

Within the scheme of this book, Easter Island is of special interest, because it provides an example of a culturally homogeneous group with ample natural resources, a suitable climate and no external threats which nevertheless failed. If the Polynesians who landed there had maintained an appropriate order they could have flourished indefinitely without the interference of outsiders. The island's physical features and climate were not as favorable as those of some other Polynesian islands but still produced a hospitable environment. The social order seems to have been based on ancestor worship, with the island divided into a pie in which each slice represented a clan associated with particular ancestors. The ancestors were worshiped in the form of the large statues that the islanders produced. These statues consumed a considerable portion of their labor and resources and contributed to the eventual deforestation of the island. As conditions worsened, apparently they built larger and larger statues and bases, which probably accelerated the collapse. In the end, there wasn't much left to eat, and they resorted to cannibalism and rats for meat. The evidence indicates that the forest was once thick with large trees, and that those trees were at least in part cut down for use in moving the statues from the quarry where they were carved to their final positions.

Diamond isn't doing much theorizing in these sections of the book and is postponing that until later chapters. However, he hints that the large statues conferred social status not unlike the trophy homes in the Bitterroot Valley and among his wealthy neighbors in Los Angeles. With my limited knowledge, I am inclined to think that the Easter Islanders' lack of contact with the outside world may have had an effect similar to that of a person who is socially isolated for a long period of time and begins to adopt ideas of questionable merit or becomes delusional due to the absence of critical feedback. Although at one time the islanders may have constituted a cohesive group, the need for individuals to differentiate themselves probably contributed to unnecessary rivalry between and within clans that ultimately led to social disintegration. Also, this may be an example of human nature in which, under certain circumstances, people tend to double down on bad ideas or false statements when challenged. Thus, when the statues didn't seem to be working their magic, the islanders built bigger ones, and when Donald Trump is publicly accused of lying, he simply tells a bigger lie. My inference here is that humans are not well-suited to an Eden-like existence, and sooner or later conditions tend to worsen even in the absence of harmful external pressures. Diamond suggests that Easter Island may be an early example of the kind of dystopian future that we may have to look forward to and will probably elaborate on that later in the book.

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