by Jared Diamond
Easter Island, with an area of 66 square miles, is the most remote habitable scrap of land in the world. The Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen spotted the island on Easter Day in 1722. His first impression? A wasteland with not a single tree or bush over ten feet tall. It had no native land animals larger than insects, and no domestic animals except chickens.
The Easter Islanders who came out to Roggeveen’s ship swam or paddled in small and leaky canoes, that Roggeveen described as “bad and frail.” As a sailor who had just spent 17 days crossing the Pacific from Chile in three large European ships without any sight of land, Roggeveen asked himself: How had the Polynesians greeting him reached such a remote island?
What puzzled him more were Easter’s huge stone statues. “The stone images at first caused us to be struck with astonishment,” Roggeveen wrote, “because we could not comprehend how it was possible that these people, who are devoid of heavy thick timber for making any machines, as well as strong ropes, nevertheless had been able to erect such images.” The statues’ sheer number and size suggest a population much larger than the estimated one of just a few thousand people encountered by Roggeveen. What happened to the former large population?
The fate of Easter Island is related to that of the Maya in Central America. The population of Central Peten at the peak of the Classic Maya period is variously estimated at between 3 million and 14 million people, but when Cortés and his Spanish army passed through the area in 1524 and 1525, they nearly starved because they encountered so few villages from which to acquire corn. Cortés passed within only a few miles of the ruins of the great Classic cities of Tikal and Palenque, but they heard or saw nothing of them. How did such a huge population of millions of people disappear? As the archaeologist David Webster succinctly puts it, “Too many farmers grew too many crops on too much of the landscape.” Compounding the mismatch between population and resources was the effect of deforestation and hillside erosion which caused a decrease in usable farmland at a time when more rather than less farmland was needed. More and more people fought over fewer resources.
Bringing matters to a head was climate change. The drought at the time of the Classic collapse was not the first drought that the Maya had lived through, but it was the most severe. At the time of previous droughts, there were still uninhabited parts of the Maya landscape, and people at a site affected by drought could save themselves by moving. However, at the time of the Classic Collapse, the landscape was now full, there was no useful unoccupied land in the vicinity on which to begin anew.
We have to wonder why the Maya kings and nobles failed to recognize these seemingly obvious problems undermining their society. Their attention was evidently focused on their short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all these activities. Like most leaders throughout human history, the Maya kings and nobles did not heed long-term problems, insofar as they perceived them.