Are You Sure You’ve Heard the Right Easter Island Story?

May 23, 2023

I was captivated by Jared Diamon’s 2005 book Collapse, which analyzes the collapses of several civilizations in world history. As Diamond wrote in his prologue, following up on his 1997 bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, “This book employs the comparative method to understand societal collapses to which environmental problems contribute.”

And the chapter that absolutely mesmerized me was the one on Easter Island, in which Diamond presented a theory about why it seemed that Easter Island society had collapsed prior to the arrival of European explorers in the 18th century (Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to “discover” the island, landing there on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722—thus the island’s western name). Referencing the Khmer, Maya, and Anasazi civilizations, Diamond posited a complex theory on why Easter Island (Rapa Nui) society had collapsed.

Sifting through a large amount of evidence, from pollen records, which “show that destruction of Easter’s forests was well under way by the year 800, just a few centuries after the start of human settlement,” to the destruction of the island’s native animals, to evidence of meat supplies feeding the indigenous people of the island, to evidence of conflict over the gigantic statues (moai) erected on the island, Diamond concluded that a combination of total deforestation, loss of animal species, and disappearing resources, led to conflict that ultimately resulted in famine and cannibalism.

Diamond’s analysis sounded spot on, not to mention frightening. But then, several years after the publication of Collapse, Diamond’s theory began to be challenged by other researchers. As Tom Garlinghouse in a May 29, 2020 article in Sapiens wrote about the paper that “In recent years, researchers working on the island have questioned this long-accepted story. For example, anthropologist Terry Hunt and archaeologist Carl Lipo, who have studied the island’s archaeology and cultural history for many years, have suggested an alternative hypothesis that the Rapanui did not succumb to a downward spiral of self-destruction but instead practiced resiliency, cooperation, and perhaps even a degree of environmental stewardship. Now new evidence from Hunt, Lipo, and their colleagues, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, lends credence to their ideas. This evidence suggests that the people of the island continued to thrive, as indicated by the continued construction of the stone platforms, called ahu, on which the iconic statues stand, even after the 1600s.” Referencing the finding that statue-building continued into the modern era “suggests that the Rapanui were not destitute when the first Europeans arrived. It’s therefore possible that it was the newcomers from Europe who contributed to the island’s societal collapse in the years to come.”

It's really important to constantly revisit and rethink theories about how things worked and work; and that certainly is true now in U.S. healthcare, where financial challenges, policy and payment changes, changings in operations, and technology advances, are all compelling the leaders of patient care organizations nationwide to rethink how best to move forward in light of emerging and ongoing trends. Per that, once again, we’re offering to our readers our annual look at the top Ten Transformative Trends impacting the U.S. healthcare industry, from broadening work on the social determinants of health, to efforts to formalize the learning health system concept, to the emergence of a cornucopia of new professional titles, and six more trends. We hope you’ll find this cover story package to be useful and meaningful.

As always, it’s important to continually examine and reexamine what we think we know. Are you sure your understanding of the Easter Island collapse is the correct one?

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