Ancient Societies Disappeared
did once flourishing societies collapse and disappear? Jared Diamond,
the Pulitzer Prize-winning geographer at UCLA, has spent much of his
distinguished career wrestling with this profound question. It is not
merely a romantic mystery; the answers, he believes, offer us the
prospect of self-preservation.
In Collapse: How Societies Choose
to Fail or Succeed, a magisterial analysis remarkable for its
ambitious sweep and interpretive panache, Diamond studies four ancient
societies across space and time Easter Island in Polynesia, the Native
American Anasazi tribe in what is now the Southwestern United States,
the Maya civilization in Central America and the Viking settlement on
the coast of Greenland. Although diverse in nature and context, these
four societies experienced what Diamond calls ecocide, unintentional
For example, seafaring Polynesians initially
settled on forested Easter Island 1,100 years ago. They cut the trees
for canoes and firewood, and used logs to help transport huge stone
statues weighing as much as 80 tons. Eventually, however, the islanders
chopped down all the forests, and their society collapsed in an epidemic
of cannibalism. By the year 1600 all of the trees and land birds on
Easter Island were extinct. Today the island is barren grassland devoid
of trees. The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern
world, Diamond notes, are chillingly obvious.
evolutionary biologist trained in biochemistry and physiology, deftly
uses comparative method and multidisciplinary tools archaeology,
anthropology, paleontology, botany and history to marshal convincing
evidence that sustaining successful societies over time depends
primarily on the quality of human interaction with the environment.
of the vanished societies experienced environmental damage such as
deforestation, soil erosion, the intrusion of saltwater or over-hunting
of game animals. The second common factor was climate change, such as
cooling temperatures or increased aridity. People can survive
environmental stress as long as the climate is temperate and the
rainfall is regular. But the interaction of environmental and climatic
strain proves deadly.
Add to that mix hostile neighbors, rapid
population growth and a loss of trading partners, Diamond concludes, and
few societies can survive for long. What ultimately caused ecocide,
however, were flawed human responses to societal crises. In other words,
environmental degradation does not ensure collapse. A societys fate
very much depends upon how it manages challenging situations.
reveals, for instance, how the Vikings who settled in Greenland after
AD 984 established a Norwegian pastoral economy, raising sheep, goats
and cattle. They also hunted caribou and seal, and they developed a
flourishing trade sending walrus ivory to Norway. But 300 years later
the Vikings vanished from Greenland.
Documentary sources along
with physical evidence reveal that the Viking settlements gradually
experienced deforestation and soil erosion. Greenland's climate also
grew colder in the 14th and 15th centuries. Colder weather impeded
commerce with Norway and reduced the production of hay, which in turn
diminished the size of herds.
At the same time that the Vikings
were being cut off from Norway, the Inuits began attacks on the Norse
settlements in Greenland. Cultural prejudices prevented the Vikings from
adopting Inuit technologies, such as harpoons, so they could not
harvest whales. Nor were they willing to mimic the Inuits in developing
dog sleighs and sealskin kayaks and seagoing boats. As a result of their
cultural prejudices (what Diamond calls their "bad attitude"), the
Vikings by 1440 had all died out in Greenland, whereas the Inuits
survive to this day.
Diamonds perspective is not solely
historical. He also discusses contemporary developments in Somalia,
Rwanda, Haiti, China and Australia, as well as Montana, a state that
once was among the wealthiest in the nation and is now struggling with
widespread poverty, population decline and profound environmental
This fascinating new book overflows with interest and
insight. Diamond complements his sobering analysis of collapsed
civilizations with more uplifting examples of societies (New Guinea,
Tikopia, Tokugawa Japan, the Dominican Republic) that have found ways to
sustain themselves without overexploiting their environments.
determines a societys fate, Diamond concludes, is the ability of its
leaders and citizens to anticipate problems before they become crises,
how accurately leaders perceive a crisis when it does occur, and how
decisively a society responds to such crises. Such factors seem obvious,
yet Diamond marshals overwhelming evidence of the short-sightedness,
selfishness and fractiousness of many otherwise robust cultures. He
reveals that many leaders were (and are) so absorbed with their own
pursuit of power that they lost sight of festering systemic problems.
Diamond observes, the world is on a non-sustainable course, yet he
remains a cautious optimist. The problems facing us are stern but not
insoluble. They demand stiff political will, a commitment to long-term
thinking and a willingness to make painful changes in what we value.
fact that the United States over the past 30 years has reduced major
air pollutants by a quarter at the same time that energy consumption and
population have risen 40 percent gives Diamond hope. So does the
success of many nations in slowing their rates of population growth. As
he concludes, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of
distant peoples and past peoples. Will we?
-- David Shi is a historian, writer and president of Furman University