The reasons as to why the Polynesians that once lived on Easter Island, called the Rapa Nui, has long been debated. Some scientists argued that the Rapa Nui died out after using up all their natural resources on the small, 63 square-mile island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Other researchers said that the population of Easter Island died out after Europeans brought new diseases, and removed many of the islanders as slaves. Still others declared that an overpopulation of rats on the island ate the crops, starving out the Rapa Nui.
So what really happened?
The latest research on Easter Island has taken an entirely different tack.
In a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on January 5, 2015, researchers reveal that the harsh environmental conditions on the island, including variations in rainfall and declining soil quality, caused a decline, but not a collapse, in the native population before the Europeans arrived in 1722.
Dr. Thegn Ladefoged, a professor of anthropology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and a co-author of the paper explained the research.
“The results of our research were really quite surprising to me. In short, our research does not support the suggestion that societal collapse occurred prior to European contact due to physical erosion and productivity decline, but it does indicate that use of less optimal environmental regions changed prior to European contact.”
In their study, the researchers analyzed and dated 428 obsidian tools and flakes of obsidian rock found in various spots on Easter Island. By dating the pieces of obsidian, a determination was made of when and how the Rapa Nui population used land and natural resources at different locations on Easter Island. The researchers discovered that land use and resources varied widely across the island, leading them to believe that the Rapa Nui suffered more from environmental constraints than an abuse of the environment.
“While we do not have direct population data, it is clear that people were reacting to regional environmental variation on the island before they were devastated by the introduction of European diseases and other historic processes.”
Dr. Ladefoged noted in the paper that the realization of an environmental collapse on Easter Island, and the ensuing extinction of the Rapa Nui may help anthropologists understand what may have happened in similar ancient civilizations that were wiped out in much the same way.
[Image via Pichost]