Ancient Easter Island has been seen as a tragic historical folly, with the Rapa Nui people causing the complete desolation of their small ecosphere at the cost of their technological interests. This loss of resources led to a decline in the island’s populations, and later wars that made them suffer even more. However, the people of Easter Island were at a disadvantage that people do not have today, since their body of standardized practices would have cared primarily for expert craftsmanship, instead of concerns like those covered by ISO 14001 – Environmental Management Systems – Requirements with Guidance for Use.
Easter Island is midway between Tahiti and Chile, and is the most isolated island on Earth. Easter Island is almost completely barren, with the exception of the 887 monumental head statues that are facing the interior of the island. These heads are known as the moai, and they would have witnessed the destruction of the island. They might even be responsible for it.
Around 1200-1500 AD, Easter Island was entirely different. The small, yet vibrant environment of the island featured many tall trees of the Easter Island Palm species. Spread under this tree canopy was the Rapa Nui, who at this time were at their peak population of 15,000 people. The large trees served as a great resource for the Rapa Nui, who used them for houses and canoes for fishing purposes. The vegetation also gave them the means to create the latticing necessary for the construction of the moai statues.
The existence of the 13 foot tall, 14-ton moai demonstrates the complexity of the society on Easter Island. While records on the early processes of the island are rare, as they had no written language, we can tell that the craftsmen of the moai would have put great time and precision into their work. Each statue, while only visibly possessing a head, actually has an entire body that is submerged in the ground. A common theory is that the moai statues honored deceased chiefs or other important people, something that indicates the Rapa Nui lived in a stratified complex society as they built these. No matter what the statues represented, we can still infer that their designers, along with those who built houses with the Easter Island Palm wood, conformed to some sort of building standards.
In addition to their use of the trees as resources, the Rapa Nui practiced slash-and-burn agriculture to grow crops. This method involves clear cutting forested land and burning any remaining vegetation. By following this method, the remaining ash from the charred trees is very high in nutrients and is used for agricultural purposes. However, this unsustainable procedure causes the nutrients in the soil to expire after only a few years, leaving the area barren. From the resulting lack of farmland, practitioners of slash-and-burn often repeat the same process in another area, leading to a decline in productivity for a large range of land.
It is often theorized that this excessive use of resources for their society, involving the construction and moving of the large moai, led to overexploitation of those resources in an irreversible manner. This could be attributed to the lack of environmental care, since they would not have had a clear awareness of environmental management. If overexploitation is the sole reason for the fall of the Easter Island ecosystem, then this is certainly the case. However, it is important to consider if there were other reasons that the vegetation on the island greatly diminished.
A more recent theory on the destruction of Easter Island has gained popularity in recent years. This theory claims destruction took place when the Polynesians first landed on the island, long before they had the time to develop civilization there. The initial ship or ships that landed on the island, much like many ships that voyaged to new parts of the world throughout history, were infested with rats. Polynesian rats (Rattus exulcans), in this case, stowed away in the migrants’ canoes and found a new home in Easter Island upon their arrival. On the island, due to a lack of competition, the rats fed on the trees and their seeds, thus preventing the trees from growing once more.
One simple fact about rats that people are somewhat uncomfortable accepting is that they reproduce very fast. Polynesian rats, under laboratory settings, can double their population in 47 days. Using this as a basis for their growth, researchers have estimated that Easter Island housed between two and three million rats when there was a human population of only 15,000. From this, the people would have benefitted not from a standard that prevented overexploitation of resources, but one that addresses invasive species. ASTM F1099M-98(2011) – Standard Specification for Rat Guards, Ship’s, details guidelines on equipment that physically prevents rats from entering ships so that they cannot damage the cargo and spread to new places.
The Rapa Nui were not the only people in the world who practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. It was common throughout the Americas for thousands of years for people to burn down forests to make use of the land until the nutrients all ran out. For example, in North America, different indigenous people used this process, and when the Europeans first arrived, they considered most of the modern United States to be pristine. Even pairing this with the chopping down of palm trees to make boats and structures does not seem enough to have destroyed the entire island. However, including the fact that the swelling rat population would have devoured most of the palm tree seeds before they could sprout, it is still possible that the locals were harvesting resources in a sustainable manner, but their plans were altered when the trees didn’t grow back.
Today on Easter Island, the moai stare into the little vegetation and one remaining bird species of the formerly rich ecosystem. These statues have witnessed much throughout their time, including an ancient stratified society, the extinction of the Easter Island Palm, the rapid decline in the population on the withering island, local wars from the lack of resources, and eventually the European arrival. Standards today reflect more-modern interests, factoring in the safety of people and the environment along with the efficiency of production. All of these interests complement each other, safeguarding nature and the society that blends with it. Standards like these could have saved Easter Island from its gradual destruction.