Big History Project
- ACTIVITY: Easter Island Mystery
- READ: What Happened on Easter Island?
- ACTIVITY: Unit 1 Vocab Tracking
- WATCH: Unit 1 Overview - What Is Big History?
- WATCH: What Is Big History?
- WATCH: The Big Bang
- WATCH: A Big History of Everything – H2
- Quiz: Welcome to the Big History
Good critical thinkers need to be able to look at things from multiple perspectives. In this activity, you’ll look at a single event—the collapse of the population on an island—from different points of view. You should know right off the bat that the true reason for the collapse remains a total mystery! That said, historians and scientists have lots of hypotheses about why this island’s population fell so drastically. You’re going to try to make sense of what happened there, and you’ll do this using multiple perspectives, or as some may say, an interdisciplinary approach.
Look at the picture of Easter Island. In 1722, explorers happened upon this island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When they arrived, they discovered over 800 giant statues and almost no people. This was strange, since the small number of people on the island couldn’t possibly have built these statues—it would have taken a much larger civilization. Think about Easter Island and consider the following questions: What kinds of events might have befallen the people of Easter Island? Could it have been disease, famine, or some other natural disaster?
Download the Easter Island Mystery Worksheet. Look carefully at the first three images:
- Easter Island Geographic Map
- Easter Island Statues
- Easter Island Chart
It may not seem like these three pictures provide a lot of information, but you can make some fairly informed guesses about this place. Based on this information, can you:
- Describe what pattern the population graph shows for this time period?
- Brainstorm as many explanations as you can that would explain this pattern?
The human population, just like the population of any species, has been subject to periods of increase and decrease over time. Population size is constantly changing, but in some cases the increases and decreases have been significant, and historians and scientists have sought to make sense of these more dramatic changes. In this activity, you’ll look at the case of population change on Easter Island and see if you might be able to solve this mystery.
Now, read the article “What Happened on Easter Island?” and complete the table on the Easter Island Mystery Worksheet.
For Further Discussion
Choose one of the questions from the table and share your answers in the Questions Area below. Then, look at someone else’s answer and see if you can find the evidence that would support that person’s answer. If you can’t, ask them what evidence they were using to come up with their ideas.
Want to join the conversation?
- I agree with Krulwich's interpretation of the Easter Island tragedy that, although the population declined as resources became more scarce, the population adjusted and continued to survive, using different modes of survival. Certainly, this microcosm can reflect the human population on Earth; despite the recent discovery of a habitable planet, we are as isolated in the Universe as Easter Island was in the Pacific Ocean, and we may find ourselves with vastly reduced lives, adjusting to an ecologically impoverished landscape of our own making.(25 votes)
- So what actually happened there?(11 votes)
- Nobody knows for certain. This link from NPR highlights this in a pretty interesting way
Like so many things, we need to evaluate the evidence that's available and decide for ourselves what is a reasonable and defensible answer.(19 votes)
- An important read on this subject is Jared Diamond's "Collapse". In this book, he talks about a number of factors that contribute to a society's downfall, and one the cases examined is Easter Island. One of the main causes of this particular collapse seems to have been mass deforestation of the area. This contributed to both the demise of the particular eco balance that was in place - and that allowed for certain types of agriculture - and the absence of trees that were big enough to build sea-faring canoes - which meant that important fish species were no longer on the menu... A certain obcession with the construction of those beautiful giant statues - which was only possible with the use of certain trees - seems to have played a part as well.(14 votes)
- Maybe the statues were a part of their religion and they cared about making them so much, that they ignored the dwindling resources for the sake of their spiritual goals?(11 votes)
- children would not do that, ad it seems a if they needed several generations to do that. maybe overpopulation(5 votes)
- Did the people on Easter Island start to kill off the older and weaker people. If you where not strong an health you were killed off?(7 votes)
- "Surprisingly few of the human remains from the island show actual evidence of injury—just 2.5 percent—and most of those showed evidence of healing... Crucially, there is no evidence, beyond historical word-of-mouth, of cannibalism."
this is my reference so in other words even though it's a possible theory there is no evidence that points towards it and is unlikely(2 votes)
- Why the heck did they all leave(4 votes)
- That's the very center of the mystery. Some of the anthropological work in the South Pacific, digging up the "village dump sites" has found the bones of larger animals in the deepest parts, and those of smaller and smaller animals on top. The very top layer sometimes has human bones in it, suggesting that, eventually, when there was nothing left for people to eat, they ate each other. I can't say for certain that might apply to Rapa Nui, but it is one possibility.(5 votes)
- I think that the statues are something to remember the people who had died in the village. Then probably the volcanoes erupted and few people were left.(4 votes)
- Easter island was proven to be a utopia of sorts. Self sufficient and self reliant. The perfect system until they ran out of food and everything else amd because they didn't import or export anything they simply died off when their resources were depleted.(5 votes)
- Were the statue built to remind us that the volcanoes still existed around the area? Or were they placed their for religious purposes? Were spiritual sacrifices made in order to keep up their rituals which in turn caused them to ignore their declining resources?(5 votes)