Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

by Jared Diamond
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Compare and discuss the rise and fall of both the Norse Greenland and Easter Island society. Discuss climatic, cultural, religious, agricultural, and social reasons behind their collapse.

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The Norse settled Greenland in 984, having discovered the island when a seafarer was blown far off-course en route to Iceland. The settlement thrived initially, subsisting on sheep, goats, and wild animals. They also kept cows, and the settlers were kept occupied growing, harvesting, and storing hay for them. At...

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The Norse settled Greenland in 984, having discovered the island when a seafarer was blown far off-course en route to Iceland. The settlement thrived initially, subsisting on sheep, goats, and wild animals. They also kept cows, and the settlers were kept occupied growing, harvesting, and storing hay for them. At its height, the Norse settlers numbered about 5,000 split between two colonies at the head of fjords on the west coast. Diamond writes that the Norse fell victim to all five of the factors he lists as causing societies to fail: environmental damage, climate change, the severing of ties with the outside world, hostile neighbors, and internal strife. The colder climate on Greenland during what is now known as the Little Ice Age, with a dramatic rise in sea ice, is widely cited as the sole reason for the colony's disappearance. However, Diamond believes that other factors played an equally important role and points to the success of the Inuit population as evidence.

Easter Island was first populated around the year 1000, and the inhabitants established a stable form of government and subsisted for several hundred years. As was the case for the Norse on Greenland, the inhabitants of Easter Island also eventually completely disappeared. However, the causes of the collapse of the two societies were somewhat different. Deforestation was the dominant factor behind the decline of Easter Island's inhabitants. They felled virtually all of the larger trees on the island, leading to a cascade of disastrous side effects that destroyed their sources of food. The extent of internal strife which followed on the island far exceeded any conflicts recorded by the Norse. Also, unlike on Easter Island, the severing of outside ties was a major reason for the collapse of the Norse settlement. Although the results were similar, the failure of the colony on Greenland was the result of an interplay between more complex factors than the case was for Easter Island

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