Even Stone Statues Need Resources

I had thought about this for a long time, but in December 2019 it was time. I got on the plane to South America and set off for Easter Island. The most remarkable thing about the island, which is located several thousand kilometers from the nearest mainland in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, are the stone statues known as moai. Almost 900 statues are scattered all over the island and were built on platforms over a period of several hundred years. Why, one does not know today any more exactly. It is assumed that they were both religious in character, into which the souls of the ancestors merged and which were supposed to give protection to the inhabitants, but also that their number and size had apparently been fueled by a competition between the more than a dozen different groups of inhabitants (clans).

Easter Island is of volcanic origin, a total of three volcanic cones border the island. The first one erupted three million years ago, the last active volcano died out 10,000 years ago. The statues and their tops are also carved from the volcanic material. The latter, which is made of a reddish volcanic material from the southern end of the island, is not a hat but a topknot, also known as a pukao.

The statues were all carved from the same quarry Rano Raraku in the north of the island and transported with wood and ropes to their locations around the island. Since the island had been home to the largest known species of palm trees, the inhabitants had the raw materials not only for shipping but also to transport the statues. Over the years, the statues grew larger and larger and must have consumed enormous resources.

The island was probably settled by Polynesians 1200 years ago between 600 and 900 of our time and then discovered in 1721 by Europeans in search of the Terra Australis. Because it was an Easter Sunday, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggenveen named it “Easter Island”. But the island offered no resources and after only one day and battles with the inhabitants the Europeans left the island again. The next contact should be 50 years later.

The fact is that already in the early 19th century the statues had all been knocked over and were lying with their faces on the floor. The most common theory for the background is that there was a shortage of resources, which had led to conflicts between the clans. Originally, 70% of the island’s area was forested with palm trees, but by the end of the 18th century there was no longer any forestation. The deforestation of the palms for the statues was only one reason, another had been the bringing of the Polynesian rat, who loved the palm fruits and so slowly exterminated them.

This shortage led to the collapse of the population, which manifested itself in conflicts and the upsetting of the statues. The population fell from a high of just under 10,000 to 1,500, and Peruvian slave traders then almost wiped out the complete population and culture. The abducted population also included the tribal chiefs and elders, who took the ancient stories and traditions with them to their death as slaves. At the end of the 19th century there were just 111 Rapanui.

Today, almost 8,000 people, half of them natives, live on the island, which is part of Chile today. The number of tourists rose from 4,000 in the 1990s to 120,000 in 2018. The island is a treasure of mankind and absolutely worth seeing, but also very fragile.

In 1994, Kevin Costner as producer filmed an elaborate movie on the island, which tells the story of the people in a dramatic story. The film shooting on location had a huge impact on the natives, because many of them received money for the first time and were able to free themselves from their poverty.

For us as humans and for companies, the history of Easter Island has lessons that are more relevant than ever before. We have to learn to use our resources. This is a very important topic in times of climate change caused by us.

This article was also published in German.

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