Easter Island has long served as a reminder of what happens to a civilization when the environment it depends upon collapses. Now, the iconic remains of that civilization are under threat from a new environmental challenge: global climate change.
Easter Island, Rapa Nui in Polynesian, is surrounded by statues called moai situated on top of ahu, or platforms. But according to an in-depth report for The New York Times published Thursday, the moai are now at risk from erosion caused by sea level rise.
The article, written by Nicholas Casey with photographs by Josh Haner, launches a series by the Times called Warming Planet, Vanishing Heritage which examines “how climate change is erasing cultural identity around the world.”
In the case of Easter Island, Haner photographed one moai that had fallen over and lies just yards from the edge of an eroding cliff; Casey reported on a stone wall that stood between some platforms and the coast and had partly collapsed due to powerful waves.
But while the moai are the most visible signs of Rapa Nui’s heritage, what lies beneath them might hold even more cultural importance: The ahu the statues stand on often double as tombs.
Archaeologists told the Times that the remains inside these tombs might help determine what exactly caused the deforestation of the island and shrunk the population from the thousands to around 100 by 1870.
But for some islanders, the fate of the tombs has a more personal meaning.
“You feel an impotency in this, to not be able to protect the bones of your own ancestors,” Camilo Rapu, leader of the Ma’u Henua indigenous organization that runs Rapa Nui National Park, told the Times. “It hurts immensely.”
One landmark that has already changed dramatically is Ovahe Beach, which used to be covered in sand. The sea swallowed most of it, leaving only rocks, and now threatens a nearby burial site.
Hanga Roa mayor Pedro Pablo Edmunds told the Times about a time capsule the town had buried two years ago to be opened in 2066, including a picture of the still-sandy beach.
“They will dig it up in 50 years and see us standing there, where there is no beach,” Edmunds said.
The loss of monuments could also damage the island’s economy, which depends on tourism. In 2016, 100,000 people visited the island of 6,000, according to the Times.
There is debate surrounding what caused the first, infamous alteration of Rapa Nui’s environment. In accounts like Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, the inhabitants deforested the island in the process of constructing the moai, leading to erosion, the deterioration of agriculture, starvation and war.
However, according to Scientific American, that account is now debated by archaeologists. There are no signs of armed conflict in the remaining artifacts, for example. Some think the process of deforestation was much slower and perhaps helped along by droughts or rats, and that the inhabitants were not necessarily aware of it as a catastrophe.
Now, some islanders find hope in those of their ancestors who did survive the mysterious collapse.
“They knew their environment was coming apart, but that didn’t stop them from persisting here. It’s the same with climate change today,” Ma’u Henua’s head of planning Sebastián Paoa told the Times.