Easter Island

New Research Challenges Reason for Easter Island Collapse

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, in the Polynesian language, is a small remote island a few thousand miles west of South America. One of the most interesting features of this island is its 887 giant monolithic statues named moai. While the initial name of the island was considered to be ‘Te Pito O Te Henua’, which means the Navel of the World, it was renamed in 1722 when the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen rediscovered it and has been known as ‘Easter Island’ since.

The island was settled by Polynesians around AD 300 by Polynesians and between the 10th and 16th centuries the island community expanded steadily, settlements being set up along practically the entire coastline. However, following this period, the population took an extremely rapid decline dropping from 15,000 to approximately 2,000. For many years it was believed that this was due to an economic and social crisis in the community caused by environmental deterioration. However, new research has now drawn this belief into question.

Dr Mara Mulrooney, assistant anthropologist at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, spent six years collecting and analysing radiocarbon dates from around the island in an effort to ascertain how the people of Rapa Nui sustained themselves before and after the time of the first European discovery in 1722. Mulrooney found that the data painted a picture of “sustainability and continuity” rather than resource decimation. 

Mulrooney claims that the widespread deforestation of the island was not “environmental suicide” as claimed by Dr Jared Diamond, but was conducted in order to create agricultural fields and plant much more useful crops, like sweet potato and taro.

Mulrooney also challenges the assertion that the population declined before the European arrival, instead claiming: “It wasn’t until well after European contact that we have real evidence of depopulation and major changes on the island”. Her conclusion is that it was not lack of food or environmental destruction that caused the downfall of the islanders. Rather it was the fatal impacts of European contact including societal collapse and introduced diseases.

By April Holloway

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