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Is Easter Island a model of global civilisation?

Yesterday, we went to the local museum. One panel reminded of a very striking feature of Easter Island's history. The local people had developed an integrated economy between roughly a dozen territorial clans/tribes that persisted for many centuries. Each clan's territory contained valuable resources -- one had the best beach for launching ocean-going canoes, another had obsidian for tools, another had the tuff used for carving moai (statues), while another had the scoria used for the topknots (hats) placed on moai. I've included a copy of Routledge's circa 1914 map of the political divisions on the island, even though it differs from later versions I've seen.

Looking from today's world, and integrated economy hardly seems unusual. In fact, that's the goal of globalisation. But remember that in Europe at the time (c 1200-1600 AD), the economy was far from integrated, and there were dozens of small and often warring kingdoms still amalgamating into nations. Effectively little trade occurred across borders in Europe, while Easter Island had clear evidence of strong trading. One reason for this may have been the role of the statue building culture in society. One question we have to ask is whether clear collapse of the statue building culture represented a true collapse of society. While evidence exists for warfare and violence, difficulty remains in determining if the collapse of the statue building culture coincided exactly with a complete societal collapse. It appears, for example, that the Birdman (Manu Tangaata) cult may have served as a new cultural basis for society. Clearly, there was some difficulty making the transition from an integrated economy based on statue building to a later one based on the Birdman cult.

This could be very similar to the rise of conflict and Fascism around the time of the Great Depression, a result that today's world leaders hope to avoid despite the seriousness of the current financial crisis. A crisis becomes increasingly serious as it moves from the loss of luxuries to the loss of basic needs, such as food. Ultimately, our project is trying to learn about whether fertility, food and population were at the root of a crisis causing the collapse of the integrated economy that existed here on Easter Island about four centuries ago.

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Troy Baisden

Was Collapse Inevitable on Easter Island (Rapa Nui)? Reconstructing a Civilisation's Failure is a Marsden Programme Troy Baisden is involved in.

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