Will Self: PsychoGeography

Journey to Easter Island

I couldn't leave you this year without saying a little bit about my trip to Easter Island in February with the artist Marc Quinn. Quinn, who is perhaps best known for his sculpture of his own head, using his own frozen blood, is a dry, witty companion to have on a long-haul, multi-time-zone journey. We hit on the idea of going to Easter Island while we were staying on Ibiza in the summer of 2006, both reading Jared Diamond's excellent survey of failed civilisations, Collapse.

Diamond's account of the rise and fall of this, the most extraordinary Polynesian society, on the remotest inhabited island in the world, may not be the most authoritative, but he takes you there: into the chthonic hearts of a people doomed by their own competitive sculpture building. Broad-brush fantasists such as Thor Heyerdahl and Erich von Daniken may have used the famous moai, or standing-stone statues of Easter Island, to bolster their own weird theories about human migrations and origins, but the painstaking archaeology of the last half-century has revealed a truth even more bizarre.

Arriving some time in the sixth century, the Rapanuians (the natives' name for themselves) discovered a thickly wooded, lush jewel of an island that they speedily set about cultivating. Eight hundred years later, it's estimated that the original 150-odd settlers had burgeoned into 10,000 or more. Along with the vast population – Rapanui is only 15 miles long and seven miles wide at its broadest point – came massive resource-depletion. The original tree-cover of giant palms was chopped down to make the scaffolding required for the carving of the moai, the runners and "roads" needed for their movement and erection.

The moai themselves were portraiture: stylised depictions of once-living elders, erected on "ahu" or ceremonial platforms, so that they might watch over the doings of their descendants. And what doings they were: gripped by the building of bigger and bigger moai (there's one only half-hacked out of the quarry at Hanga Roa that would've stood 20 metres high and weighed 200 tons), the Rapanuians ended up chopping down all the trees. They were then unable to build the big outriggers needed for deep-sea fishing – and the island itself could no longer support them.

Civil war and anarchy were already underway when the white man pitched up and hastened the destruction with guns, germs and steel. Within decades all that was left were the toppled statues and a few score deracinated natives. There was a moral here – as well as some fabulous statuary – although it's debatable whether it's one that could be appreciated simply by visiting the place. After all, although a designated World Heritage Site – whatever that means – going to Easter Island is for the environmentally concerned a paradox of such sharpness that it threatens to chop your psyche in two.

On the one hand, if we don't visit the island, the Rapanuians, who have re-colonised the place after being dragged off into slavery by Peruvians and Chileans in the 19th century, will be doomed to a second extinction, as they depend solely on the tourist trade. But on the other hand, the 20 hours of carbon-shitting flight from Europe, and the heavy tread of injection-moulded, high-tech Gore-Tex boots around the sacred sites, are inexorably completing the job begun by the status-obsessed moai builders themselves.

As Marc and I traversed half the known world, we began to run across moai that had been exiled from paradise: or rather, concrete travesties of the statues that contained within their cartoonish features a doomy warning. There was a moai on a traffic island in Santiago, there were the massed ranks of the knick-knack moai on the island itself: political prisoners of the tourist economy. Then, when we returned to England, I began to see vulgarised moai wherever I looked. There were a few sunk in the shark tank at the London Aquarium, a few more on sale at the antiques centre near my parent-in-law's house in Lanarkshire, and then, finally, there were the moai outside the themed "South Sea" bar on Kennington Road, only half a mile from where I live now, and, even more disturbingly, overlooking the house where my great-great grandfather, Adolphus Self, was living in 1840.

Could it be that these gimcrack copies are, in some quirk of the space-time continuum, effigies of my own ancestors, dropped down in sarf' London to keep an eye on my own destructive tendencies? Marc drew my attention to the kiddie film Night at the Museum, in which the exhibits at the Natural History Museum in New York come to life, including a giant moai that dubs itself "Dum-Dum". Dum-Dum's catchphrase is "Dum-Dum wants gum gum", and the horror of this shtick is that it isn't the Easter Island statues that are dumb, but us: speechless in the face of our own consuming desire to chew up the earth, and every last little bit of latex in it.

'PsychoGeography', a new book collecting together many of Will Self and Ralph Steadman's columns from 'The Independent Magazine', is published by Bloomsbury, price £17.99