Easter Island Collapse
Once a month here on the Molten Sulfur Blog, I run content taken from our book Archive: Historical People, Places, and Events for RPGs. This post is one of eighty entries in Archive, each more gameable than the last!
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Easter Island Collapse
Human Shortsightedness Leads to Misery
Easter Island is a speck of volcanic rock about twice the size of Manhattan, 2,300 miles northwest of Chile. It’s one of the most isolated inhabited spots in the world, and is famous for its stone statues. But to many archaeologists, Easter Island holds cautionary tales, reminding us of our dependence on nature and the consequences of societal collapse. The history and fate of Easter Island is still debated.
When the first Polynesian settlers arrived is still unclear, but they found a tropical island covered by a thick palm forest resounding with the cries of over thirty species of birds. The soil was low in nutrients, but the island bore a coastal plain well suited to the crops these pioneers brought with them. Here, they created a unique society. By their peak, the Rapanui – as the natives were known – had developed a complex structure of chiefdoms and stone architecture with their sacred ‘moai' statues dotting the landscape. Then Rapanui society began falling apart. By the mid-19th century, it had all but disappeared.
The fall of Rapanui society aligned with the fall of the trees. Before the first Polynesian settlers, a subtropical forest blanketed the island. The forest included the world’s largest palm tree species, more than 65 feet tall and a yard in a diameter. The Rapanui used the trees and their products for almost everything. They ate their fruits, thatched houses with their fronds, and fashioned bark-cloth clothing. They burned firewood for cooking and warmth. They built canoes and harpoons to fetch food from the sea. And to erect the moai statues, they needed wooden log rollers, sleds, and levers, and tree fibers to create rope. With rising population came more demand for timber. The forest was largely eradicated by the peak of the Rapanui population. They cleared all but one species of tree to extinction.
The fall of the forest had devastating consequences for the Rapanui. Without trees, there were no canoes. Food from the sea was out of reach. Porpoise and dolphin bones grew rarer by as early as 1500, meaning the Rapanui were no longer catching them and discarding the bones. As the population continued to grow, other food sources dwindled. Seabird and shellfish remains began to decline as six species of birds were hunted to extinction. The only animal to survive in abundance in the wild was the Polynesian rat, likely a stowaway on the canoes of the first settlers. The rat only made matters worse, as it ate the seeds of the trees, hindering reforestation.
Even as resources dwindled, Rapanui chiefs intensified food production, trying to create surpluses to support their last strength: religion. They were eager to construct ever-larger moai, but the practice stressed the already fragile agricultural system. Oral tradition holds that the last moai was erected in 1620. The chiefs and priests were overthrown by military leaders around 1680. The society collapsed into tribal war and rivals toppled the moai. With war and without food, it is said the Rapanui resorted to cannibalism. Without canoes, they couldn’t even leave. They were trapped in a hell of their own making. It was also said that the population began to rebound until a Dutch explorer ‘discovered’ the island in 1722. By 1872, foreign diseases and slavers dropped the Rapanui population to only 111 individuals.
Easter Island Collapse in Play
Nowadays, the Rapanui population has climbed to several thousand, and the toppled and tortured moai statues have been re-erected for tourists. At the table, your PCs could be visitors to the island before the arrival of Europeans. They could try to prevent the destruction of the environment by finding alternative resources. But your players will probably have more fun if they find the locals caught in civil war and possibly cannibalism. The PCs might have to carefully navigate the island’s bloody politics to accomplish what they came for and escape without being caught in the crossfire (or the cookpot). You could put a supernatural spin on it by painting the chiefs as cruel immortals who draw their power from the moai. But even toppling the statues won’t bring back the forest, and the island spirals ever faster towards doom. Alternately, the party could participate in the island’s final logging trip, answering the question “What did she say when she cut down the last tree on Easter Island?”