I have always been fascinated with Easter Island, maybe one reason is my family's history growing up in the Hawaiian Islands. It seemed unlikely I would visit--until my trip to Chile, where I found it is an easy jet flight from Santiago. Being there felt unreal at times, but was a dream come true. The scenes I saw still create feelings of mystery today when I look at the photos of this unique place.
Easter Island's story is one that holds an important lesson for all of us, because the inhabitants were unwitting victims of their impact on the environment. The island once had a moist climate with many trees and plentiful food. The construction of these famous statues, called moai, used wood from the forest. Even more important, ongoing battles between the two native tribes living there were fought with fires, consuming more precious forest. When enough trees were destroyed the climate changed and the food supply disappeared. The ocean around the island did not have enough fish to sustain the population and most of the people perished. As a civilization, could our impact on this island in space where we live have the same result? I believe we must be careful to not let such a catastrophe catch us by surprise. No one understands just how much damage our civilization can do to the Earth before an irreversible change endangers its fragile beauty. I hope we never come close enough to know the answer.
When people see pictures of moai from the island, called Isla de Pascua by the Chilean people or Rapa Nui by the natives, there are always two questions: How old are the statues? How big are they? The first statues were probably built around 700 A.D. and the average statue is around four meters, or 12 feet tall and weighs about 50 tons.
Those who have been treated for a heart attack or have a kidney transplant may owe their lives to the remnants of this island's ecosystem. A drug called Rapamune was discovered from a soil sample taken on Easter Island. It was isolated from the bacterium Streptomyces hygroscopicus. The drug prevents rejection of a transplanted kidney and also reduces the formation of scar tissue after insertion of cardiac stents, small spring-like coils of metal that are used to prop open clogged arteries in the heart.
Human activities are destroying species and ecosystems at an unprecedented rate. No one knows how many useful drugs have been wiped from the planet by environmental carelessness. The adoption of practices that emphasize sustainable farming, energy use, and land use is vital to preserving the species that could benefit our health and survival.