Easter Island, a tiny speck in the vast Pacific Ocean, is the most remote inhabited island on earth. It is a place shrouded in mystery. In 1888, when it was annexed by Chile, only 111 inhabitants and few trees remained. Yet, at its peak, several hundred years earlier, it had been a lush tropical paradise with a population of 9000 people who carved and mounted enormous statues (known as “moai”) to venerate their ancestors. What explains the sudden collapse of this once thriving society?
For years, the consensus view held that the residents of the island greedily cut down all of the trees in order to transport the moai statues. In his best-selling book Collapse, Jared Diamond cites Easter Island as the “clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.” However, recent research, outlined by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo in The Statues that Walked, points to a new equally intriguing theory: the Polynesians who settled Easter Island brought with them a rat that upset the island’s fragile ecosystem and caused the destruction of the trees. If this sounds far-fetched, note that a similar phenomenon occurred in Hawaii, where up to 90% of the native lowland forest was destroyed by the same Polynesian rat.
Whatever the true cause of the island’s collapse, Easter Island is an intriguing place to visit. The entire island functions as a large outdoor museum with archeological ruins to discover and examine at every turn. In addition to the moai statues, the island contains the remains of past villages and two rock quarries heaping with half-built moai still frozen in the moment construction of the statues suddenly stopped. It also exhibits natural beauty beyond what would imagine on an island that lost all of its trees. Lush green craters and volcanoes rise from the island’s interior while shimmering patches of turquoise water lie just beyond the coast. Despite the island’s famed losses, paradise has not been entirely lost.