Rats vs. Easter Islanders: How the Islanders (sort of) won


Neat article. A couple of things, though:

What the shit? Is this possible? What kind of minerals from what kind of rocks can be extracted by just wind?


Come on. Tang WAS delicious!

On Easter Island, people learned to live with less and forgot what it was like to have more. Maybe that will happen to us. There's a lesson here. It's not a happy one.

That is a depressing thought. I wonder, though, if the people of Easter Island had a record of what their island used to look like–assuming that the change was gradual enough that it went unnoticed for a few generations–would they have felt a greater sense of urgency?

Or maybe they did feel a sense of urgency but just didn’t have the means to prevent the ecosystem’s decline. Maybe they figured out what was happening, and that the rats were the cause, but couldn’t kill them fast enough.

Neither possibility gives me much hope. I still see the glass of Tang as not only half empty but evaporating.


This rat theory does not jibe with the documentary I watched.

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Am I the only who thinks “decimate” is misused all the time? Originally it meant to kill one in ten - which isn’t that bad.


If I recall Collapse correctly, wasn’t much of the resource depletion the result of frantic scrambling to constantly build bigger and more elaborate Moai statues?

I thought this might be more like Raoul Silva’s “rats vs. islanders” anecdote from Skyfall:

My grandmother had an island when I was a boy. Nothing to boast of. You could walk along it in an hour. But still, it was - it was a paradise for us. One summer, we came for a visit and discovered the whole place had been infested with rats. They’d come on a fishing boat and had gorged themselves on coconut. So how do you get rats off an island, hmm? My grandmother showed me. We buried an oil drum, and hinged the lid. Then we wired coconut to the lid as bait. The rats come for the coconut, and… they fall into the drum, and after a month, you’ve trapped all the rats. But what did you do then? Throw the drum into the ocean? Burn it? No. You just leave it. And they begin to get hungry, then one by one… they start eating each other, until there are only two left. The two survivors. And then what - do you kill them? No. You take them, and release them into the trees. Only now, they don’t eat coconut anymore. Now they will only eat rat. You have changed their nature.


The volcanic rocks on Easter Island are pretty easily eroded by aeolian forces. Many of the petroglyphs on the island, which are only about 400-500 years old, are barely recognizable now due to the destructive force.

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My guarantee to you: for all the long years of your life, there will be less of everything, except people.

Pish posh. We have more CO2 every year.


Over the years there have been many competing theories of what happened to the Easter Islanders and why there cultured declined from its height. Rats eating the the roots and seeds of the palm trees is one of the more recent ones. Before that it was climate change, before that it was the shear exuberance of Moai building (887 moai from 1100CE to 1700CE, ~1.5 moai/year!) and over-harvesting the wood that was needed.

Of course researchers only pick one and try to prove it on order to make a name for themselves. It is possible that all are right. That the trees could have survived the rats if only the climate hadn’t changed or they weren’t cut so fast to make Moai. Perhaps the trees would have kept up with Moai building if there were seeds left from the rats. But no one gets published with a moderate paper saying that the decline was a combination of factors because it looks like then you don’t know the answer.

The other thing not mentioned in the story is that there was disruption on the island of the culture and authority structures. At one point in the early 1800’s every single standing moa on the ahu on the island were knocked down during intertribal fighting. Any Moai standing today not in the quarry or the quarry road have been restored to be upright. That to me sounds like the Easter Islanders didn’t quietly accept and gradually accept their fate, there were disruptions.

The final one was the arrival of Europeans, European diseases, and finally Peruvian slave traders that raided the island. I wish we had the alternate history version where the culture survived and spread, we learned Rongorongo and they told us what happened.

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The authors gave a talk for the Long Now seminar series which is worth listening to or watching:


I found it convincing, but I haven’t read Diamond’s book or looked into any of the competing theories of the Island’s collapse.

I always knew garlic sauce was that strong. It’s damn powerful on sandwiches, too.


Decimation is a process which at times supposedly was repeated over and over, until even even tough guys like you thought it was bad.

Tough guys?

Not “internet tough guys”, not toughs. Just tough guys.
I wouldn’t have thought someone sporting “cop-killer” ammo, who feels being forced to inflict a 10% fatality rate among his colleagues “isn’t that bad”, would take issue with being called tough.
Is there a different meaning attached to “tough” across the pond?

You’re implying a lot of implications about someone who was only discussing etymology…

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