Rats and Europeans

In September, I blogged about the decline of Easter Island, citing Benny Peiser’s critique of Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Although I cited the article approvingly, comments by Russil Wvong led me to reevaluate it. There were some errors regarding Diamond’s argument, and the journal in which it was published seems to have an anti-environmentalist axe to grind.

While not defending his article, Benny Peiser wrote an e-mail to alert me to a new study which casts doubt on Diamond’s thesis. USA Today reports that “rats and Europeans are likely to blame for the mysterious demise of Easter Island,” not simply deforestation and warfare as suggested by Diamond.

anthropologist Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii at Manoa first blames the Polynesian rat. The rats probably deforested the 66-square-mile island’s 16 million palm trees. “Palm tree seeds are filet mignon to rats,” Hunt says.

While USA Today focuses on rats, another article describes Hunt’s analysis of the European impact:

While tribal warfare likely reduced the population of Easter Islanders, Hunt suggests that most of the decline probably was resulted from early 18th-century Dutch traders, who brought diseases and took slaves from the island. Research elsewhere indicates that “first contact” diseases — like typhus, influenza and smallpox — carry extremely high mortality rates, often exceeding 90%. The first traders to reach the island likely carried such diseases which would have rapidly spread among the islanders and decimated the population.

My own prejudices lead me to blame rats and Europeans for just about everything, so I’m inclined to trust Hunt’s research, but I’m sure this isn’t over…

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