Environmental geography

Treeless at Easter

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Credit: MARY EVANS

Easter Island in the eastern Pacific is one of the remotest spots on Earth, but distance need not lend enchantment to the view. When Easter was discovered by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen in 1722, he found it a treeless wasteland rather than the palm-fringed paradise one usually associates with the Pacific. Captain James Cook (writing in 1774) described the islanders as “small, lean, timid and miserable”, hanging on as subsistence farmers amid the ruins of the giant statues erected by their ancestors (see picture).

The statues were erected between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, and could have been the immediate cause of the islanders' plight. At its height, Easter Island society was based on a system of clans, who outdid one another in feats of megalithic excess. The strain cost the island all its native birds and all but a few of its native trees, which included the tallest species of palm tree in the world. Having turned their island's natural capital into artefacts, the islanders relapsed into war, savagery and cannibalism. In “Twilight at Easter”, an article in The New York Review of Books (25 March 2004), Jared Diamond tells the story of Easter Island as a tragic parable for modern times.

But the islanders were, in addition, cursed by poor location. Elsewhere in this issue (Nature 431, 443–446; 2004), Barry Rolett and Diamond present an analysis of environmental factors that might be associated with the deforestation of Pacific islands. They show that Easter had drawn a losing hand even before the first Polynesian colonists stepped ashore.

Islands most likely to lose their forests are small, dry, remote from other islands (and from continental dust inputs), low-lying and relatively distant from the Equator. Easter scores high on all these factors. “Easter's collapse was not because its people were especially improvident but because they faced one of the Pacific's most fragile environments,” according to Rolett and Diamond. Or, in the words of the blues standard: “If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all.” In the final analysis, megalithomania was probably the last straw. Easter Island's current environmental profile cannot be wholly explained by natural factors, as Rolett and Diamond's model shows — and neither can the state of relatively well-wooded Pacific Islands such as Tonga, whose society employs its own protective measures against deforestation.

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Gee, H. Treeless at Easter. Nature 431, 411 (2004) doi:10.1038/431411a

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