The Resilience of Easter Island, a new historical ethnography by Sebastiaan Roeling, outlines the history and culture of the island based on archaeological research and old ship logs. The Dutch author has always been intrigued by the tales of Dutch explorers such as Jacob Roggeveen. Even as a child, Roeling wanted to visit Easter Island. His studies of the Lacandon Maya in Mexico and employment with an environmental agency in The Netherlands helped prepare him for his research.
In his book, Roeling challenges the widespread belief that the Rapa Nui themselves were responsible for the collapse of their culture. Environmentalists like Jared Diamond have used Easter Island as an example of what can happen when limited resources are abused. They point to the overexploitation of the island’s palm trees for the transportation of megalithic statues called moai. Others have claimed that it was the introduction of the Polynesian rat that caused the deforestation. Roeling disputes these claims and cites studies of rat colonies on other Polynesian islands where the rodents caused no deforestation. Roeling suggests that the deforestation of Easter Island was caused by the uncontrolled use of firewood in traditional earth ovens and open fires intended for heating.
While admitting that the Rapa Nui were complicit in the deforestation, Roeling disputes the concept of cultural collapse. The Rapa Nui encountered by explorers like Roggeveen have been portrayed as starving thieves, prostitutes, and cannibals huddled on a barren and isolated island. Yet the original sources do not report a famine prior to the arrival of Peruvian slave traders in the 1860s. The 1722 log of Jacob Roggeveen mentions the fertile soil of Easter Island and later explorers like Cook and La Perouse also noted the fertility of the island and the impressive agricultural innovations of the inhabitants.
The book describes the appearance, dwellings, customs, festivities, religion, myths, stone carvings, and cults of the Rapa Nui, and through these cultural aspects, Sebastiaan Roeling demonstrates that the popular image of the early Rapa Nui as thieves and prostitutes is false. Roeling cites explorers who described the islanders as caring fathers, loving husbands, and friendly hosts. The collapse of Rapa Nui culture was caused by the Peruvian slave traders. The Resilience of Easter Island shows how the Rapa Nui were able to overcome negative outside influences, providing the world with an example of resilience rather than a warning of doom.