“The metaphor is so obvious. Easter Island isolated in the Pacific Ocean — once the island got into trouble, there was no way they could get free. There was no other people from whom they could get help. In the same way that we on Planet Earth, if we ruin our own world, we won't be able to get help.”

Monday 26 December 2011

Cannibalism and Civil War

According to Diamond’s theory, as deforestation, resource exploitation and population expansion began to ‘destroy’ Rapa Nui, the Islanders descended into warfare and cannibalism. This has captured the attention of the public, as can been seen in the movie ‘Rapa Nui’ (see previous post), which bases its story around civil war on Easter Island.

BBC’s horizon created a documentary on Easter Island (again, see my previous post), but can be summarised in this article (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2003/easterisland.shtml). Evidence of civil war can be summed up into these points:
  • Archaeological evidence include wooden carvings of emaciated people and the appearance of weapons, such as spear tips
  • Skeletons have been found with severe wounds (Flenley and Bahn 2007)
  • Changes in diet coincide with civil war. Resources were scattered around the island, yet friendly trade on the island allowed all tribes to survive – once they were at war with each other, friendly trade disappeared
  • Legends talk of a time of hardship, terror and cannibalism

Diamond claims that three-quarters of the human population died out due to cannibalism, starvation and civil war, and that one of the world’s most remarkable civilisations self-destructed. The last point encapsulates the theory that Easter Island descended into warfare and cannibalism…it is simply a legend and myth. It is plain to see from these points that very little evidence exists to support warfare and cannibalism on Easter Island. The texts from the Dutch expedition in 1722 report fields of yam, and healthy, fit people, which contradicts a violent cannibalistic society suggested by Diamond (1995):

‘They also turned to the largest remaining meat source available: humans, whose bones became common in late Easter Island garbage heaps. Oral traditions of the islanders are rife with cannibalism; the most inflammatory taunt that could be snarled at an enemy was “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.” ‘

Most scholars researching Easter concur that this theory is no more than a hoax designed to capture the imagination of the public, and has very little archaeological evidence to support it:
  • Hunt and Lipo (2007) analysed spear heads that were supposedly used for weapons, and concluded that very few of the hundreds they inspected possessed the traits that would make them good weapons
  • Based on a study of 2618 bones, Owsley (1994) deduced that 2.5% of them showed signs of traumatic injuries
  • NO evidence has actually been found for cannibalism

To conclude, Bahn (1997) claims this theory as:

‘One of the most ridiculous yarns ever spun about the island’


Owsley, D. W., Gill, G. and Ousley, S.D. (1994) ‘Biological effects of European contact on Easter Island’ In. Larsen, C.S. and Milner, G.R. (eds) The Wake of Contact: Biological Responses to Conquest 161-1 77. New York: Wiley-Liss, Inc.

Bahn, P.G. (1997) ‘Easter Island or (Man-) Eaters Island?’ Rapa Nui Journal 11(3): 123-125.

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