John Hawks has an extended discussion of Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse, from which I discovered this recent paper [PDF] by archaeologist, Benny Peiser of Liverpool John Moores University. Titled From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui, the paper tackles head on the evidence Diamond uses to assert that the residents of Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) committed ecological suicide, or ecocide.
While his theory of ecocide has become almost paradigmatic in environmental circles, a dark and gory secret hangs over the premise of Easter Island’s self-destruction: an actual genocide terminated Rapa Nui’s indigenous populace and its culture. Diamond, however, ignores and fails to address the true reasons behind Rapa Nui’s collapse. Why has he turned the victims of cultural and physical extermination into the perpetrators of their own demise? This paper is a first attempt to address this disquieting quandary. It describes the foundation of Diamond’s environmental revisionism and explains why it does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.
According to Peiser, the primary evidence Diamond relies upon are oral traditions from the residents of Rapa Nui and from historical sources, not from the archaeological record. There are several problems with this. First of all, the oral traditions of the Rapa Nui are highly suspect:
It is generally agreed that Rapa Nui’s oral traditions are untrustworthy and of relatively late origin; they are extremely contradictory and historically unreliable. As Bellwood (1978) emphasises: “By the time detailed observations were made in the 1880s, the old culture was virtually dead [...] It is my own suspicion that none [of the traditions] are valid.” Most of the information was “gleaned from a few surviving natives from the late nineteenth century onwards, by then decimated, demoralised and culturally impoverished population which had lost most of the collective cultural- historical memory” (Flenley and Bahn, 2003).
In spite of this widely-held consensus among researchers, Diamond insists that these highly questionable records are reliable. In his view, “those traditions contain much evidently reliable information about life on Easter in the century or so before European arrival” (Diamond, 2005:88). Without his confidence in the reliance on mythology and concocted folklore, Diamond would lack any evidence for pre-European civil wars, cannibalism and societal collapse.
Secondly, his reading of the historical sources is highly selective.
there are compelling reports from the late 18th century that Rapa Nui was far from being in a state of terminal decline … Yet Diamond does not provide a balanced account of these reports, depicting Easter Island’s natural environment in the bleakest possible way …
He also importantly overlooks evidence that abundant seafood was a crucial part of the diet.
Together with abundant and virtually unlimited sources of seafood, the cultivation of the island’s fertile soil could easily sustain many thousands of inhabitants interminably. In view of the profusion of broadly unlimited food supplies (which also included abundant chickens, their eggs and the islands innumerable rats, a culinary ‘delicacy’ that were always available in abundance), Diamond’s notion that the natives resorted to cannibalism as a result of catastrophic mass starvation is palpably absurd. In fact, there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever for either starvation or cannibalism.
But the most damming argument of all, and one that directly relates to our discussions concerning Yali’s question, is that Diamond overlooks the importance of the historical context in which the oral traditions he relies upon were produced.
It is important to understand the context of these early conversations. While the customary keepers of traditional folklore had been deported or killed, the island’s ethnicity had changed as a result of population transfers on the 1860s and 70s, with an influx of a number of foreign Polynesians on Easter Island (Thomson, 1891:453). As Holton (2004) points out, “most of the island’s myths were collected in the nineteenth century, after the population collapse.” This was during a time when much of the cultural memory was “already contaminated by tales from Tahiti and the Marquesas, and elements of Christianity.” Yet Diamond, who heavily relies on these unreliable records, fails to mention that these myths and legends were written down by Europeans after they had converted the survivors to their own belief system.
In the one case where Diamond does rely upon archaeological data, the evidence appears to contradict him:
Diamond also employs archaeological evidence for his claim of the pre-European date of civil war and societal collapse. He refers to obsidian points (mataa) as indicators of increased fighting as a result of environmental degradation. Their exact dating, however, remains ambiguous. Bahn and Flenley (1992:165) point out that these spear points only “proliferated in the 18th and 19th centuries when they became the commonest artefact on the island”.
The implications of archaeological evidence thus contradict Diamond’s argument that the collapse occurred prior to Easter’s traumatic collision with European visitors and attackers. Rainbird (2002:446) emphasises: “It thus appears from the evidence presented by Bahn and Flenley themselves that the majority of the major indicators of apparent competition, warfare, and social disarray, apparently caused by islander-induced ecodisaster, dates to the decades and centuries following initial European visits.”
But what is most disturbing is the extent to which Diamond seems determined to avoid looking at the actual genocidal violence of the colonial encounter.
The striking lack of research into actual European atrocities contrasts noticeably with the fixation of most researchers on hypothesised ecological ‘suicide’ which is squarely blamed on the self-destructive actions of the natives themselves. As a result, our knowledge about the exact number, gravity and detrimental consequences of the more than 50 European incursions on Easter Island during the 19th century remains extremely incomplete. We don’t even know whether the island’s population – before it crashed in the 1860s and 70s – stood at 3,000, 5,000 or as high as 20,000, a dubiously high estimate provided by A.A. Salmon who was the first to take a population census in 1886 (Thomson, 1891:460).
What is undisputed, however, is that as a result of the series of slave raids, the subsequent small pox pandemics and numerous population transfers of the 1860s and ‘70s, the population was chopped down to a mere 100-odd survivors in 1877.
It seems strange that Diamond would overlook a story of guns, germs, and steel, but I suppose a different book title needs different kinds of evidence.
In many ways, Diamond’s methodological approach suffers from a manifest lack of scientific scrutiny. Instead of carefully weighing up and critically assessing the quality, authenticity and reliability of the data he employs to support his arguments, he consistently selects only the data and interpretations that seem to confirm his conviction that Easter Island self-destructed.
UPDATE: Serious doubts have been raised about the reliability of this author and the journal that this critique was published in. Please read the comments below for more details.