Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fear and cannibalism on Easter Island

Paul Theroux's recent trip to India as recounted in his new book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is fascinating but ultimately chilling.

After taking the train through the arid weirdness of Turkmenistan, a land with a ruler so strange and controlling that he renamed bread after his mother, the travel writer's happiness at being back in India is palpable.

But, by the time he leaves India, Theroux has the reaction of a man who has spent hours trapped on a crowded subway train, wedged up the armpits of fellow travelers.

It wasn't the dirt or the heat or the poverty that finally sent Theroux away from India.

"What sent me away finally was something simpler,  but larger and inescapable. It was the sheer mass of people, the horribly thronged cities, the colossal agglomeration of elbowing and contending Indians, the billion-plus, the sight of them, the sense of their desparation and hunger, having to compete with them for space on sidewalks, on roads, everywhere," Theroux writes.

Theroux compared them to ants he saw on rotting fruit on the sidewalk. He said the population of the United States had doubled in his lifetime.

"India was a reminder of what was in store for all of us, a glimpse of the future."

It's a long way both geographically and culturally from India to Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. While the tall glass towers of the call centers rise above the slum of modern Mumbai, and traffic buzzes and honks in the streets, the enormous heads called moai look balefully over silent and empty brown hills and a wide expanse of bleak, pale blue ocean on Easter Island.

Freezing winds batter these 62 square miles marooned on thousands of miles of empty ocean.

The baleful stares of the statutes give few clues to the horrors and the bloodshed they have witnessed, but archaeologists have pieced together the grim history of Easter Island.

The island was first settled about 400 AD but by the 17th Century the island's population had expanded to about 10,000. By then something had gone badly wrong on Easter Island. The island's natural resources had been exploited to the point of exhaustion. All the trees were cut down and the soil became infertile.

The result was factionalism, mass killing and cannibalism. It took an orgy of violence to reduce the size of the population.

It's hard to imagine the terror and bloodshed in this barren and baleful land, hemmed in by the unforgiving tides and isolated from the world, but shatteted bones in caves confirm the killing was going on, even as the first Europeans set foot on Easter Island.

Sergio Rapu, an archaeologist commented: "What was once an elevated and tightly controlled society had broken down, almost to anarchy."

The tale of Easter Island is reminiscent of the fictional breakdown of civilized society described by William Golding in The Lord of the Flies.

But what if Easter Island is a microcosm of a larger world? We are exhausting natural resources at an alarming rate and medical advances are fuelling overpopulation.

As Thomas Mathus wrote at the end of the 18th Century. "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man."

He is yet to be proved right, but there's still time.

My apologies for writing a serious blog entry and neglecting Kim Kardashian. I don't expect it to happen very often.

11 comments:

  1. Very thought provoking. I think there's still a good amount of time before America starts eating itself, but we do have ravenous appetites so who knows. It'll be interesting to see how things look in 30 years after the world adds another few billion. I'll be looking at real estate on the moon then hopefully.

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  2. thanks Chris - yup still lots of large servings going down here methinks

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  3. Very interesting and sobering post, David. I thought this piece was very well written. As for Kim Kardashian, I wouldn't mind if I never read another word about her again! :-)

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  4. Thanks Daisy - fortunately I was being tongue in cheek re Kim

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  5. Wow, I never had any idea of the history of Easter Island. Now I definitely want to visit there and learn more about its history. Very interesting, wonder how much better the world would be if we simply marooned all the reality show contestatnts (past and present) aof the world there.

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  6. I'd love to go there. Maybe the networks can host a reality show called Cannibal Island where they all eat each other. Last contestant standing gets to eat free for a year at Olive Garden.

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  7. Cannibal Island hmm this might be a ratings winner. The Europeans played a massive part in the demise of Easter island with their slave raiding.

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  8. I just read few reviews while staying connected to your post .I would really like to read this book.
    A thought provoking post.If it is fine with you ,i would like to share this post of yours in my FB profile.

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  9. Yep Ryan, guess teh Europeans were responsible for a lot. Thanks Kavita - by all means...

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  10. I don't do too well with crowds, someone is going to get hurt, hence I do my traveling out of season.

    'Orgy of violence' conjured up all sorts of images.

    Kim Kardashitwit ~ I have those rants covered on my blog.

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  11. quite wise - I have indeed read your rather funny rants re Kim

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