Neolithic Malta presents an exemplum and a warning. The island received its first human inhabitants, who probably arrived from Sicily, some time around 5000 BC. After about 3600 BC, trade and other links with the outside world waned. Over the next thousand years or so, the people of Mlata built seventeen monumental stone temples unlike any elsewhere in the Mediterranean.
These are the remains of one of the seventeen.
Here's a view of another:
There's something truly remarkable about these megalithic temples, but it's troubling that a marginal and isolated culture would make such a huge and economically unproductive investment. Indeed, starting about 2300 BC, this native Maltese culture went into precipitous decline. A major cause seems to have been the extreme deforestation and soil loss when the population increased and resources were overused. The best guess is that the Maltese experienced an economic and spiritual crisis.
They did not, alas, confront the environmental problem; instead, the evidence suggests that the people, probably led by an oppressive priestly caste, continued to make greater and greater investments in religious worship, no doubt hoping that their gods would rescue them from their predicament. "In the end their expectations were not met and crisis ensued from which it took centuries to recover" (Barry Cunliffe, Europe Between the Oceans, [Yale, 2008], p. 172.) The population disappeared, the culture was extinguished and Malta was deserted until the arrival of Bronze Age peoples around 2000 BC.
Let's go over this ground and make sure that we understand. The neolithic inhabitants of Malta temporarily increased their population at the expense of massive enviromental degradation, and then, as the standard of living dropped, decided that the best way to deal with the crisis was to make mammoth investments in priests and temples (rather than, say, birth control and sustainable forestry and agriculture).
Is there a moral here. We report, you decide. But I believe that I can hear the debate. "We've already built fifteen temples and it hasn't worked. Perhaps we should try something new, like planting trees." "Nonesense, young radical. We must look to faith. Faith will reward us. One more temple, this one really huge. More stones over here!"