Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Real Lesson of Easter Island

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Real Lesson of Easter Island

Article excerpt

Ancient cultures have much to teach us. Unfortunately, we still haven't learned how to look at them with unbiased eyes. Our examination of enigmatic ancient monuments, such as the stone figures on the tiny Easter Island, reveals only the predilections and perversity of our own world-view, rather than the reality of the people who produced them.


I call this the Grafton Elliot Smith effect. The great Australian anatomist believed that any sign of sophistication in the ancient world was the product of the Children of the Sun--that is, the Egyptians. Why? Because sophistication, capability, invention, your basic thought and imagination, were rare attributes. The world belonged to the savage primitive and only a few ever rose above that level. In modern times, by overwhelming general agreement, the few boiled down to white Europeans.

While academia has moved on from Smith, the popular imagination has not. It is much more gratifying and soothing to look at ancient cultures from a supremacist self-image.

The Rapanui, the people who colonised Easter Island (Rapa Nui), are the prototype for this phenomenon. They are seen through the constructed lens of what it is to be primitive. Not only do primitives lack capability and rationality, they also have perverse beliefs and are mired in superstition. What else could one expect these people to do than to destroy their own environment, engage in warfare and cannibalism, and kill themselves off in slavish worship of false gods--whose empty eyes are all that remain?

The story of Rapa Nui is a morality tale of ecological devastation. As promoted by Jared Diamond in his bestseller Collapse, this theory has the inhabitants felling their forests to erect enormous, enigmatic stone statues. Without wood to build boats, they were marooned and unable to fish. Finally, cannibalism sealed their fate, thus providing an ecological lesson for us all. …

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