Pitcairn, Henderson and Mangareva

Anjali Parmar


The civilization of Henderson island collapsed due to deforestation, over-dependency on trade, and overpopulation. These were problems to be faced by European settlers, but the construction of the Panama Canal was not a cause for the collapse. However, the Islands of Mangareva and Pitcairn are still inhabited today.


The Mangareva, Pitcairn and Henderson civilizations are an isolated group of three islands in the South Pacific Ocean located right in the middle of the Americas and Australia. Henderson island is located at the southernmost part of the group, and is considered as the type of island generally referred to as Makatea. This means that it is a former circular coral reef that has risen above sea levels after thousands of years. It’s covered in a layer of broken limestone, has beautiful beaches and shores, and is tiny, with an area only fourteen square miles. However, it is the largest of the three islands. Pitcairn, which is west of Henderson, is a mere two and a half square miles in area. It is home to rugged beaches, with not many places to dock boats, and an abundance of useable stone. Mangareva, which is about fifteen miles in diameter, is located three hundred miles southeast of Pitcairn. It houses a large lagoon filled with seafood, but has no useable stone. There was early Polynesian life on the islands from 800 A.D. to about 1450 A.D. Staying true to their Polynesian roots, the island civilizations always had a food surplus, which was a major reason why deforestation occurred.

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Although these islands seem close together, they are actually days apart in reality. In order to get from island to island, canoes were made from hollowed out tree trunks. Because the agriculture industry in Mangareva had grown so much, more land needed to be cleared for the crops. More trees were cut down to expand the farmland, and they were used to also make more canoes to transport the growing number of exports. Unfortunately, because so many trees were being cut down at a rapid rate, the soil started to fall away from the roots of the plants, and soon enough, the island was plagued with a horrible case of soil erosion. This soil erosion meant that the islanders could no longer plant in that land for a good couple of hundred years. As a result, all trade to Pitcairn and Henderson islands gradually ceased and the agriculture industry in Mangareva collapsed.

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Neither the Henderson nor the Pitcairn islands had the ideal circumstances to sustain life,so the three islands decided to form a trade contract with each other. Mangareva Island grew crops, mostly taro, yam and bananas. They harvested black-lipped pearls which were exported and used to make fishhooks. Pitcairn was the site of a magnificent stone quarry, and traded out large amounts of basalt and obsidian, which were used to make tools such as hammers or knives. However, the land of the Henderson Island wasn’t arable enough to grow crops, and the island was covered in limestone, which made it impossible for a stone quarry to take root. But, the island did obtain both crops and stone, as it traded green turtle meat and the red feathers of the lory and the fruitdove. These red feathers were in high demand because they signified power and strength to whoever could afford to wear them. Because the agriculture business in Mangareva was so good, the islands ended up with a food surplus and a rapidly growing population. When the agriculture business of Mangareva collapsed from soil erosion, the rest of the islands were essentially starved off. Neither of them could plant crops, so they were left with too many people and not enough food.


Due to an old Polynesian tradition, all of the islands had a constant food surplus. Because there was a considerable amount of extra food, the people took that as a liberty to populate. The food was coming at a smooth pace from Mangareva, and the stone and feather trades also greatly benefited the islands. People didn't stop to think that the soil and the land weren't renewable resources, and that eventually, they would run out, causing a destruction in all three of the island's economies. Because Mangareva had soil erosion, they could no longer harvest and trade crops. All of the civilizations had a rapidly increasing population and a consistently depleting food source. The three islands are isolated by the South Pacific Ocean. This means that the journey to the nearest civilization includes at least a two week journey by canoe. As a result, the people couldn't flee to a neighboring civilization. They were trapped in their small cluster.

Panama Canal

When the Panama Canal was built in 1941, it revived the islands. The new canal created a trade route through the Pitcairn and Mangareva islands, which brought tourism, and a new way to bring resources to the people. In a way, the Panama Canal was the saving grace for these islands. Without it, there would be no way to bring the struggling people the needed resources to nurture their civilization back to life.
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Diamond, Jared M. "[#3 The Last People Alive: Pitcairn and Henderson Islands]." Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2005. Print.

Diamond, Jared. "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Summary - ENotes.com." Enotes.com. Enotes.com, 1 Apr. 2014. Web. 01 Apr. 2014. <http://www.enotes.com/topics/collapse-how-societies-fail-succeed>.

Diamond, Jared. "Ecological Collapses of Pre-industrial Societies." Http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/bec/papers/Diamond_Ecological_Collapses.PDF. UCLA, 2000. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. <http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/bec/papers/Diamond_Ecological_Collapses.PDF>.

Diamond, Jared. "G&G | Will We Choose To Survive?" G&G | Will We Choose To Survive? New York TImes, 2005. Web. 01 Apr. 2014. <http://www.garlicandgrass.org/issue9/Jared_Diamond.cfm>.

Null, Savannah. "Collapse: Chapter 3." Prezi.com. Savannah Null, 1 June 2013. Web. 01 Apr. 2014. <http://prezi.com/z-oorrpchq0l/collapse-chapter-3/>.

"Henderson Island- Prehistoric Economy of Feathers." BBC News. BBC, 29 Apr. 2004. Web. 01 Apr. 2014. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-lancashire/plain/A2309195>. Published by BBC in 2004, this article is a reliable source for this research paper because it is published by a well known and well respected organization which is known for their research capabilities. The site includes links to different sources/articles that were used in writing the article. The article explains the downfall of the Islands, as well as the history before, and the aftermath of the fallen economy and completely destroyed environment. It also addresses the fact that the same events could possibly occur in this time and age, as we are so dependent on international trade. In addition to the straightforward language used, Prehistoric Economy of Feathers published by BBC is a great way to learn about the history and downfall of the Pitcairn Island group.

Pitcairn Islands Office. "Pitcairn Islands." Pitcairn Islands. Pitcairn Islands Government. Web. 05 Mar. 2014. <http://www.government.pn/Pitcairnshistory.php>. Published by the Pitcairn Island government, this article is definitely a reliable source to use for this research paper. It discusses the entire history of the Islands, and gives the reader a solid understanding of how the island was established and what lead to its downfall. From the writing of its first constitution to the economic and environmental downfall, this article covers every topic that a reader could want to know about the Islands. It is very easy to understand, and the colorful history of the islands makes the article interesting as well.