Issue 9 Science Shoutout

The fall of the giants

🕒 7 min

People often ask, “What is the single most important environmental/population problem facing the world today?” A flip answer would be, “The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!”

Jared Diamond

A sunny day in the Pacific

Jacob Roggeveen, the discoverer of Easter Island

On the 1st August 1721, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen set sail intending to find Terra Australis, a hypothetical continent believed to exist somewhere in the Pacific. This was purely based on the idea that the landmass from the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by land in the Southern Hemisphere. Instead, on Easter Day 1722, he found a small island in the middle of the Pacific which we know as Easter Island today.

The island quickly proved more interesting than Roggeveen expected. For starters, it was full of these head-shaped statues. Though Roggeveen couldn’t know each of these heads weighed up to 88 tons, he knew they were heavy. He knew that to transport such heavy stones from the beach, a lot of people would have been required. And yet, at that time, the island was inhabited by no more than 2000 people, half of them being children. How was this possible?

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The stone statues on Easter Island were a sign of wealth

The second thing that puzzled Roggeveen was that there were no big animals on the island. No cows, no sheep, no big birds; only chickens, which the inhabitants must have brought to the island. Moreover, there were no big fish in the shallow waters around the island. Roggeveen figured that the islanders must have been fishing in deep waters. But one look at their boats raised more questions than answers. Easter Islanders did not have big boats and did not embark on long fishing trips. Instead, they used small and leaky boats that fit two people at most.

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When Roggeveen discovered Easter Island, the inhabitants were using small and leaky boats

Hold on for a moment. Easter Island is a lonely island in the middle of the Pacific. It takes a 10-hour flight to reach it from Peru, the nearest land. To sail to it in the 18th century, it would take weeks. How did the inhabitants arrive at Easter Island in such small boats? How did they carry the chickens and their belongings? How did they survive the stormy seas?

You must be wondering why was Roggeveen puzzled by these questions. Well, the most likely way to transport the massive statues is to roll them over wooden logs, very similar to how we assume Egyptians moved stones to build pyramids. To build large boats, one would also need large trees. The problem? This is Easter Island as Roggeveen found it.

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The island is completely barren. There are no large trees in sight.

What Roggeveen didn’t know is that the statues are the remnants of a much bigger and greater society. One that travelled across from Polynesia for weeks to reach Easter Island, bringing with them everything they need for survival. One that depended on trees found on the island and started its demise by cutting down the trees which in turn allowed them to travel and fish.

Trouble up north

A few centuries before Roggeveen arrived at Easter Island, and much farther north, a similar drama was unfolding. Due to their shipbuilding and sailing skills, we know Vikings as astonishing explorers with settlements far beyond Scandinavia: in Russia, France, the British Isles, Iceland, and North America. But there was always one thorn in their side – Greenland.

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Hvalsey Church, one of the few remaining Viking structures on Greenland

At first glance, Greenland looks just like many other Viking settlements in Scandinavia and Iceland. It is icy, but that was not unknown territory for Vikings. The land is difficult to farm, which is also a situation familiar to Vikings from Scandinavia. The land is poor in resources, at least the ones they needed. They would, hence, have to rely on trade, but they were fine with that. And yet, Vikings did not manage to establish a sustainable settlement on Greenland for centuries.

While Vikings struggled, there was a community that succeeded to tame Greenland for centuries – the Inuit. You would certainly not imagine Inuit as mighty warriors conquering half of the explored world. So, what did Inuit know that Vikings didn’t? The answer is as surprising as the role of trees on Easter Island – Inuit ate fish! For some largely unknown reasons, the Greenland’s Viking chiefs profoundly rejected the Inuit fish-based diet. Instead, they continued to feast on pigs, cows, and goats brought over from Scandinavia. But icy Greenland is an unwelcome environment for such animals and the settlers frequently starved to death.

The collapse of civilisations

These are just two stories about the decline of great civilisations. I’m sure you are familiar with many more: the demise of the Maya civilisation and the Aztecs, ancient Rome, the fall of the Mongol Empire after Genghis Khan, the Egyptians, among many others. You might think that every great civilisation ended for unique and unpredictable reasons.

In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond explains how that assumption would be wrong. In the book, Diamond guides us through the fall of several historical civilisations, clearly detailing the exact reasons for their fall and how such issues happened in the first place. What emerges as an overarching conclusion is that almost every great civilisation in human history has collapsed for one of five reasons: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours, overly friendly relations with the neighbours, and their response to those challenges. 

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Think of Easter Islanders: they damaged their environment beyond repair and lost their source of food and much necessary transport. Similarly, Greenland Vikings failed to adapt to their environment because of certain cultural norms and expectations. Many other civilisations have disappeared in wars, but also, surprisingly, because of overly friendly relationships with their neighbours: they made themselves dependent on their neighbours’ resources, which might disappear in moments of natural disaster. Imagine a desert civilisation relying on its neighbours as a source of food. If their food-providing neighbour is hit by a natural disaster, its inhabitants would need all of that exported food. This would cause a food shortage in the desert civilisation, which would historically be a cause for war.

Collapse is a must-read for everyone interested in making the world a better place for one particular reason: Diamond clearly shows that civilisations fall because of human actions. Though the natural environment and climate change might seem out of our control, historically they were not. Environmental damage was always a direct result of human actions, like with our Easter Islanders. Climate change might be out of our control, but it is up to us to adjust to it; not to follow the example of Greenland Vikings. Most importantly, while reading this book, you might get the impression that society today is repeating the same mistakes.

You should not think that Diamond paints a gloomy picture. The book will also introduce you to some civilisations as exceptions to Diamond’s rules. One of them are the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea, who have survived in a challenging environment for millennia. The Papua New Guineans have managed to do so through strong social commitments: their culture has evolved in a way that is very protective of their environment. Because of that, they have developed one of the most efficient agricultural systems in the world and are first and foremost concerned with preserving their environment. Such societies make Diamond a cautious optimist.

If you are still unsure whether to read the book or not, let me give you one more reason: you will not be able to avoid hearing Sir David Attenborough’s voice in your head while reading. Similarly to Sir Attenborough’s documentaries, the book will also show you how have we gained the knowledge of civilisations that disappeared long ago. Diamond carefully guides you through the evidence unearthed by archaeologists and explains how modern knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, and geology helped us decipher the mysteries of old civilisations. In doing so, he never forgets to include any surprising discoveries: what must have a person that cut the last tree on Easter Island been thinking, the irrational reluctance to eat fish by Greenland Vikings, and the role of llamas in the fall of the Mayan Empire. But I will not spoil this last surprise.

By Sebastijan Dumančić

Sebastijan is a computer scientist working on Artificial intelligence, teaching machines how to think and learn. Sebastijan has been an active member of S3 since 2012.

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