The Ancient Inhabitants of Easter Island were not the Cause of the Deforestation on the Island

The Ancient Inhabitants of Easter Island were not the Cause of the Deforestation on the Island

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A team of Spanish scientists has managed to reconstruct the past 3,000 years of history of Easter Island. Their new findings show that deforestation of the island occurred gradually, and not in all areas at the same time. Furthermore, they say that it was due to major climate changes and not overexploitation of resources by humans, as previously thought. The research suggests that deforestation ravaged Easter Island for more than a thousand years and influenced the collapse of its ancient civilization.

According to the study published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution and as reported by Agencia SINC , the team of researchers from the Institute of Earth Sciences Jaume Almera ( ICTJA -CSIC ), the University of Barcelona (UB), and the Center for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications ( CREAF), addressed the deforestation of Easter Island from a new perspective, jointly analyzing the climatic, ecological, and cultural aspects.

Comparison between vegetation on Easter Island in the past (top) and how it is today.

Comparison between vegetation on Easter Island in the past (top) and how it is today. (Rod6807/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

So far assumptions about the ecological and cultural collapse of the island were based on incomplete analyses of pollen from lacustrine records, in which the sudden replacement of palm groves by prairie grasses was observed centuries before the arrival of Europeans. But the new study has managed to reconstruct what happened during the past 3,000 years without interruption in the timeline, noting that deforestation actually occurred gradually and that did not take place at the same time all across the island.

The new evidence shows that over that same time period severe droughts occurred, which could have played an important role in the deforestation and the disappearance of the island’s society.

Toromiro, the only endemic tree on Easter Island that has survived until today.

Toromiro, the only endemic tree on Easter Island that has survived until today. ( Public Domain )

“This calls into question classical interpretations of ecological and cultural degradation being caused solely by humans. We still have much to investigate but, thanks to new information, it seems that a long and gradual succession of interrelated climatic, ecological, and cultural changes have led to the current situation. All these recent findings challenge traditional assumptions about the history of Easter island, in particular the existence of a sudden ecological and cultural collapse brought about by the ancient society of the island,” said Valentí Rull, a researcher for ICTJA-CSIC, and the lead author of the current research.

Featured Image: Moai at daybreak with Rano Raraku behind. (Alanbritom/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )

By Mariló T.A.

This article was first published in Spanish at and has been translated with permission.

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