Jan J. Boersema

Faces of Easter Island

On the sustainability of a culture

In this book Jan Boersema puts paid to a stubborn myth hugely popular with the environmentalist movement. Easter Island, a remote speck in the vast Pacific Ocean, has acquired iconic significance as a horrifying example of what people can do to their natural environment and consequently to themselves. The inhabit­ants are said to have stripped their island of trees because of their culture’s runaway obsession with statues, condemning themselves to isolation, famine and war.

Boersema exposes this apocalyptic story as ‘a construct in which facts are exaggerated and combined with myths to suggest in retrospect a sequence of events that we now know to be at odds with reality’. Are these the words of an anti-environmentalist or a climate sceptic? Far from it. Boersema is professor of environmental studies at the Free University of Amsterdam and has been studying sustainability all his life. He has a comprehensive grasp of countless sources, from the ship’s journals of Jacob Roggeveen and James Cook – the first Western seafarers to call at Easter Island – to the latest archaeological and paleobiological research.

Yes, the Polynesians who colonized Easter Island caused deforestation, but sculpture was only partly responsible.

Boersema patiently calculates how many tree-trunks were needed to move the giant statues, hacked out of a quarry in the south of the island. He then uses geological records to estimate how many trees there must once have been. Their gradual disappearance, he writes, is attributable not to statue transport but to a failure of felled forests to regrow. The Polynesian rat, which arrived with the first colonizers, gnaws at seeds and young shoots. This kind of expert deconstruction is typical of Boersema’s book.

By about 1650 the island was bare. There was some erosion but, says Boersema, there is no proof that it threatened food production. All the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources confirm there was plenty of food, and the Easter Islanders thrived on their diet of sweet potatoes, yams, bananas, fish and chicken. ‘The island’s history before the arrival of the Europeans is a story of continuity and change rather than collapse and depopulation. Their society succeeded in adapting to deforestation and its consequences for nature and culture, achieving a new balance.’

It was not seventeenth-century deforestation that devastated the Easter Island community but nineteenth-century Peruvian slave traders. Boersema meticulously documents its sad end.

  • Combines narrative clarity with a thorough knowledge of the subject.
  • Makes short work of an appealing yet misleading story of ecological determinism.

Boersema’s reconstruction is a fascinating account, with a conclusion a good deal more reassuring than the doom-laden scenarios of the theorists of collapse.



Jan J. Boersema

Jan J. Boersema is a biologist who gained a doctorate in theology and taught environmental studies at the University of Groningen, while acting as an adviser to the Dutch environment ministry. Since 2002 he has been a professor at the Free University in Amsterdam’s Institute for Environmental…

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Beelden van Paaseiland. Over de duurzaamheid van een cultuur (2011). Non-fiction, 352 pages.
Words: 82,000

With illustrations in black-and-white, notes and references


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