History is like a spirited Baker, squeezing and pulling even the most resilient cultures into shapeless, undefined molds. From Sparta to the great Indus Valley, history has tried to flatten countless unsuspecting civilizations. It even tried to flatten ancient Easter Island, and succeded. But why? What made Easter Island so stiff that it could not handle a bit of kneeding? The people that lived there belonged to a sophisticated stone aged civilization with enough cultural knowledge to last them a millennium. So why did they all die? The prevailing theory is that the Easter Islanders brought disaster upon themselves, in part by chopping down the forest which had originally covered most of the island. Another theory, the one I want to talk about here, says that they were crippled by their culture. They lived in a static society, meaning they failed to adapt to changing conditions, which is why they did not survive. Strong evidence for this can be found by looking at those tall leering statues. If their civilization was so advanced, why do they all look the same? Surely it was not above them to make at least some minor improvements?
According to the standard narrative, the civilization that once inhabited Easter Island collapsed because of poor resource management. This explains why they are no longer around. There are, however, 3 alternative explanations. The first is by Terry Hunt, the co-author of the book The Statues that Walked. He concluded that their civilization continued to function just fine through the deforestation until it was eventually destroyed by epidemics, caused by contact with Europeans. The remaining two explanations are interesting because they are completely opposed to one another. Their differences are essentially philosophical, and are “immediately evident in their different attitudes towards those statues” (Deutsch, 2011). The statues on Easter Island became the Trojan for two separate documentaries: “The Ascent of Man” by Jacob Bronowski, and “The State of the Planet” by David Attenborough. Attenborough called them 'astonishing stone sculptures... vivid in evidence of the technological and artistic skills of the people who once lived here'. To him, the Easter Islanders were exactly like us: they were a ‘miniature world’, a small copy of the world we live in today. Bronowski, however, had a different message: They were nothing like us. To him, the critical question is: Why are all the statues alike? “You see them sitting there, like Diogenes in their barrels, looking at the sky with empty eye-sockets, and watching the sun and the stars go overhead without ever trying to understand them.” According to Bronowski, when the Dutch discovered Easter Island in 1722, they said it had the makings of an earthy paradise. But he disagrees. “An earthly paradise is not made by this empty repetition... These frozen faces, these frozen frames in a film that is running down, mark a civilization which failed to take the first step to the ascent of rational knowledge.... People often ask about Easter Island. How did men come? They came here by accident: that is not in question. The question is, why could they not get off?” (Deustch, 2011)
According to David Deutsch, the statues were all made alike because Easter Island was a static society. It never took that first step in the ascent of man. And this is the exact reason they never left. Further, many of the statues are at various stages of completion. According to the prevailing explanation, this is because right before it stopped forever, there was a sudden surge in statue-building. In other words, as disaster loomed, the islanders diverted ever more effort not into addressing the problem – for they did not know how to – but into making ever more and bigger (but very rarely better) monuments to their ancestors. “The whole reason Bronowski went to Easter Island was to demonstrate the profound difference between our civilization and “civilizations like the one that built these statues”. His message was: we are not like them. Attenborough uses the demise of this world in miniature to spread the message that: “Its inhabitants lived well, just as we do. And yet they were doom, just as we are doomed unless we change our ways… ” (Deustch, 2011)
David Attenborough thinks the island 'sustained' them. Humans were sustained by “the rich, fertile biosphere and the cultural knowledge of a static society”. But Deutsch points out that in this context, 'sustain' has an interestingly ambiguous meaning. I could mean: Providing a civilization with what they need. But it can also mean: preventing things from changing, which can mean the exact opposite. Deutsch explains that Oxfordshire currently sustains human life in the first sense: it does not make them ‘enact the same, traditional way of life in every generation’. In fact, it actually prevents them from doing so. “if your way of life merely makes you build a new, giant statue, you can continue to live afterwards exactly as you did before. That is sustainable. But if your way of life leads you to invent a more efficient method of farming, and to cure disease that has been killing many children, this is unsustainable.” A sudden surge in the number of children that survive life threatening diseases means: less food and water, less space and fewer people needed to work the fields. In this situation, there is no way of continuing as before. “You need to live the solution, and to set about solving the new problems that this creates”. The Easter Islanders’ culture sustained them in both senses. This is the hallmark of a functioning static society. It provided them with a way of life; but it also prevented them from solving the problems they needed to survive. “it sustained their determination to enact and re-enact the same behaviours for generations. And it sustained the shapes of those statues, and the pointless project of building ever more of them.” And if the prevailing theory is true, the Easter Islanders started to starve before the fall of their civilization. In other words. “even after it had stopped providing for them, it retained its fatal proficiency at sustaining a fixed pattern of behaviour. And so it remained effective at preventing them from addressing the problem by the only means that could possibly have been effective: creative thought and innovation.”
Ancient Easter Island was a savvy, sophisticated stone aged civilization that eventually collapsed. Their static culture preventing them from adapting to changing conditions. They were eventually overcome with problems because they could not solve them. This truth holds for all civilizations, including our own. If we are to overcome any civilization ending threat whatsoever (global warming included), we must look to the future with an open mind, and foster a respect for traditions of criticism and reason.
Deutsch, D. (2011). The Beginning of Infinity.
Why openness to change is important
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