And within the last decade or two, archaeologists have shown us that there were environmental problems underlying many of these past collapses. But there were also plenty of places in the world where societies have been developing for thousands of years without any sign of a major collapse, such as Japan, Java, Tonga and Tikopea. So evidently, societies in some areas are more fragile than in other areas.
Are we about to follow their lead? Everyone who has seen the abandoned buildings of the Khmer, the Maya, or the Anasazi is immediately moved to ask the same question: Why did the societies that erected those structures disappear?
Their vanishing touches us as the disappearance of other animals, even the dinosaurs, never can. No matter how exotic those lost civilizations seem, their framers were humans like us. Among all such vanished civilizations, that of the former Polynesian society on Easter Island remains unsurpassed in mystery and isolation.
But my interest has been revived recently by a much more exciting account, one not of heroic voyages but of painstaking research and analysis. My friend David Steadman, a paleontologist, has been working with a number of other researchers who are carrying out the first systematic excavations on Easter intended to identify the animals and plants that once lived there.
It lies in the Pacific Ocean more than 2, miles west of the nearest continent South America1, miles from even the nearest habitable island Pitcairn.
Its subtropical location and latitude--at 27 degrees south, it is approximately as far below the equator as Houston is north of it--help give it a rather mild climate, while its volcanic origins make its soil fertile.
In theory, this combination of blessings should have made Easter a miniature paradise, remote from problems that beset the rest of the world. The island derives its name from its discovery by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, on Easter April 5 in We originally, from a further distance, have considered the said Easter Island as sandy; the reason for that is this, that we counted as sand the withered grass, hay, or other scorched and burnt vegetation, because its wasted appearance could give no other impression than of a singular poverty and barrenness.
The island Roggeveen saw was a grassland without a single tree or bush over ten feet high.
Modern botanists have identified only 47 species of higher plants native to Easter, most of them grasses, sedges, and ferns. The list includes just two species of small trees and two of woody shrubs. Their native animals included nothing larger than insects, not even a single species of native bat, land bird, land snail, or lizard.
For domestic animals, they had only chickens. As Captain James Cook recognized during his brief visit inthe islanders were Polynesians a Tahitian man accompanying Cook was able to converse with them. Their craft, he wrote, were put together with manifold small planks and light inner timbers, which they cleverly stitched together with very fine twisted threads.
But as they lack the knowledge and particularly the materials for caulking and making tight the great number of seams of the canoes, these are accordingly very leaky, for which reason they are compelled to spend half the time in bailing.
The canoes, only ten feet long, held at most two people, and only three or four canoes were observed on the entire island. With such flimsy craft, Polynesians could never have colonized Easter from even the nearest island, nor could they have traveled far offshore to fish.
The islanders Roggeveen met were totally isolated, unaware that other people existed. Yet the people living on Easter claimed memories of visiting the uninhabited Sala y Gomez reef miles away, far beyond the range of the leaky canoes seen by Roggeveen.
At least more, in all stages of completion, were abandoned in quarries or on ancient roads between the quarries and the coast, as if the carvers and moving crews had thrown down their tools and walked off the job.
Most of the erected statues were carved in a single quarry and then somehow transported as far as six miles--despite heights as great as 33 feet and weights up to 82 tons. The abandoned statues, meanwhile, were as much as 65 feet tall and weighed up to tons. The stone platforms were equally gigantic:Easter's End In just a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism.
Why do societies fail? With lessons from the Norse of Iron Age Greenland, deforested Easter Island and present-day Montana, Jared Diamond talks about the signs that collapse is near, and how -- if we see it in time -- we can prevent it. Watch video · With lessons from the Norse of Iron Age Greenland, deforested Easter Island and present-day Montana, Jared Diamond talks about the signs that collapse is near, and how -- if we see it in time -- we can prevent it.
X Contents Chapter 5:The Maya Collapses Mysteries of lost cities v The Maya environment v Maya agriculture v Maya history v Copan * Complexities of collapses v Wars and droughts v Collapse in the southern.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (titled Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive for the British edition) is a book by academic and popular science author Jared Diamond, in which Diamond first defines collapse: "a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.".
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