Saturday, March 13, 2004
The March 25 issue of The New York Review of Books includes an excellent essay and book review by Jared Diamond, on the decline of human culture on Easter Island.

What really struck me, aside from it being a literal case of paradise lost, was the inexorable socio-political logic behind the destruction. It was not simply a people hunting and logging themselves out of an island paradise; a greater part of it was due to the construction of costly religious and political displays, which both intimidated rival tribes, and kept the chiefs and priests in power. What followed: deprivation, starvation, cannibalism, revolutions, civil wars, the death of an once elaborate culture, is both sad and sadly, it seems, inevitable. It is a destruction that is both wanton and innocent. What was going on, and what must be done to stop it, must have been clear to the islanders at some point; at the same time it must have also seemed impossible to do anything else. The implications of this story for today is clear enough.

In the late 1700's, the Island's priests, impressed by the power of writing exhibited by the Spanish with whom they came into contact, sought to renew their lost prestige by inventing the Rongorongo script. When the magic of monuments failed, it was to the magic of words the islanders turned; but Culture, as magic and as power (however destructively wielded), turned out to be pretty frail stuff in the end.