October 23, 2012
Environmental mismanagement causes social collapse in ancient civilizations
Throughout human history, there has been a pattern of success and downfall. As humans grow and expand, they often take over many resources and use them. Some societies build up and remain sustainable for generations; others, on the opposite side of this, like Easter Island and the Classic Maya fail to remain strong because of the lack of environmental management. As their populations grow, crops, minerals, and game become scarce, and the population starts to decline drastically. These are definitely examples of social collapse and environmental mismanagement. In Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed, Diamond writes about various examples of how societies eventually collapse. Diamond has five main factors that contribute to collapse: climate change, environmental issues, failure to adapt to environmental issues, the shortage of essential trading partners, and warfare with neighboring societies. These issues, in my opinion, are the cause of social collapse.
Humans naturally have the urge to expand as space and resources become limited. island hopping in the Pacific by the Ancient Polynesians or building skyscrapers in New York City, expansion is evident in both ancient and modern times. In Jared Diamond’s Collapse, he refers to a small island in the Pacific Ocean known as Easter Island. Easter Island is a reasonably sized island. It is about 66 square miles (Diamond 83). Easter Island is among a list of places where social collapse is clearly evident. Easter Island is a barren rocky island in modern times. It has few shrubs and grasses. It is littered with various statues that have been damaged and the tools used to carve these statues. It has only a few thousand occupants – which is less than what was thought to have been true prior to European interactions and observations of the great statues that had to hauled from quarry to ahu (stone platform sites) – and virtually no domesticated land animals except for the chicken (Diamond 81-82). But, the population was much larger in prior centuries; researchers have estimated a population as high as 30,000 people on Easter Island (Diamond 90). With a population this large, they had to survive off of more than just insects and chickens.
When archaeologists dug around Easter Island, they found various animal bones from both birds and marine animals. They also found tree remains buried under sediment. This led them to believe that the island had to have had a multitude of trees and an abundance of seabirds and marine life in a recent part of Easter Island’s history. This aided in the conclusion that animals like porpoises, seabirds, and open-ocean fish like tuna virtually disappeared from their diet (Diamond 106). This is important to Easter Island’s downfall because it points out two of Diamond’s environmental issues that mankind faced in the past and that mankind still faces today: overhunting and overfishing.
“No Pacific Island other than Easter ended up without any native land birds” (Diamond 106). This is due to the overhunting of native species on the island. With the lack of birds to fulfill the dietary needs of the population, the islanders had to turn to another source of food. This source came from the sea. Marine life from fish to porpoises to shellfish became a huge part of the menu. This eventually led to overfishing.
The next big environmental issue that Diamond pointed out with Easter Island was deforestation. On page 106, Diamond writes, “The giant palm, and all the other now-extinct trees identified by Catherine Orliac, John Flenley, and Sarah King, disappeared for a half a dozen reasons that we can document or infer.” He goes on to say that the charcoal samples from ovens on the island proved that trees were used for firewood. Also, cremation was a big part of the deforestation. The