Cosmography Humour

The Silent Heads Of Easter Island

Moai at Rano Raraku, Easter Island
It's Got To Be A Metaphor For Something

A friend alerted me to this via Facebook today – The famous “Easter Island heads” are not just heads. They were whole bodies, buried up to their necks. Previously thought to be merely enigmatic and mysterious, this discovery demonstrates them to be more accurately described as madder than a cat flap.

But I do you wrong. Among people who actually pay attention, it was always well-known that these figures were whole bodies. The ones that seemed to be only heads were the exception rather than the rule, but are better known to the rest of us for two reasons. Firstly, they are striking and fascinating just sticking out of the ground like that. It’s one of the great images.

Secondly though, by the time cameras got to Easter Island all the free-standing ones had been knocked over. This seems to have been caused by conflict among the islanders. You know how it goes. Someone pushes one of yours over, you push over one of theirs, before you know it the only statues left vertical on the whole island are the ones that were buried upright.

But why were they carved and erected in the first place – and why did they stop? No one really knows, but one popular explanation was given in the comments to the article linked above, by a person calling themselves “I am the Birdman”. Being lazy, I will quote it in its entirety here:

The most likely theory is that they were carved as “tombstones” of sorts, a memorial to the person. And of course, the next man’s idol must be bigger. They also wore hats and had bright white eyes with pupils adhered to them. And if I remember correctly, that still non-ciphered language is called Rongo-Dongo¹. Sadly, it was the construction of these statues that did in the civilization. In order to roll them into place they needed logs, and in doing so, they completely decimated every tree on the island. No trees, no wood, no fire, no shelter, havoc, and then no more people. It’s sad really. Watch the movie 180 degrees South for a better animation of this.

Excessive pointless consumption leading to ecological devastation and thus the collapse of a civilization – a perfect parable for the errors of our times.

So perfect in fact that it couldn’t possibly be true. People do do entirely mad things occasionally of course, especially for religious purposes, but it seems more likely that deforestation was caused by rats and other species introduced by boats from other parts of Polynesia. (The coming of rats to Hawaii caused similar ecological upheaval.) The people and culture of the island was then upset even further by visits from various European explorers, missionaries, and finally slave traders, all bringing alien ideas and alien diseases with them.

So Easter Island is not a great metaphor for what happens to a planet when people consume excessively and without forethought. It’s a much better one though for what happens to a planet when it’s invaded by aliens. We’d better hope that doesn’t happen as well.


  1. They didn’t remember correctly. It’s called Rongorongo. If it is a true written language rather than some  simpler memory-aid or calendar system, and if it was not inspired by contact with another culture, it is one of perhaps only four instances of writing being invented independently.

2 replies on “The Silent Heads Of Easter Island”

I’d have to agree “So perfect in fact that it couldn’t possibly be true.” But your offered alternatives also may fall into the same perfection.

I would say “The people and culture of the island was then upset even further by visits from various European explorers, missionaries, and finally slave traders, all bringing alien ideas and alien diseases with them.” is rather a series of valid, but secondary points in the total picture of the island, because it is said that “By the time of European arrival in 1722, the island’s population had dropped to 2,000 – 3,000 from a high of approximately 15,000 just a century earlier.” [1]. Therefore, simply trotting out the same reasons that apply to other locations ignores the largest drop. The Island experienced something more interesting before the usual (and guilty) suspects arrived.

This is not to argue for the old and simple “environmental devastation caused by human excess hypothesis” just that your list of complex causes does not explain the largest drop in population which somehow is tied to a changing environment _before_ the arrival of the Europeans. A better place for list of causes would be those that contribute to this initial drop, none of which would include explorers, missionaries and slave traders since those are all anachronisms when looking at the amazing and curious 80% decline.

Rats look like they contributed [2]. Disease? Who knows.

[1] Barbara A. West (2008) Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Infobase Publishing. p. 684. ISBN 0816071098

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