An Easter Island mystery has been solved, with researchers saying they know the reason that the native Polynesian culture famous for their giant stone statues disappeared so abruptly.
The culture, known as Rapa Nui, was believed to already be in decline by the time that Europeans first arrived in Easter Island in 1722, but the cause has long been debated. Some believe that internal conflicts led to the decline, while others say it was diseases brought by the Europeans.
But a team of researchers believe they have the answer — a combination of factors that included both internal difficulties and the introduction of Europeans.
“In the current Easter Island debate, one side says the Rapa Nui decimated their environment and killed themselves off,” said Oliver Chadwick, a professor in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Geography and the Environmental Studies Program.
“The other side says it had nothing to do with cultural behavior, that it was the Europeans who brought disease that killed the Rapa Nui. Our results show that there is some of both going on, but the important point is that we show evidence of some communities being abandoned prior to European contact.”
Chadwick said the Easter Island mystery may have a simple answer — there wasn’t enough food to go around by the time Europeans arrived.
“The pullback from the marginal areas suggests that the Rapa Nui couldn’t continue to maintain the food resources necessary to keep the statue builders in business,” explained UC Santa Barbara’s Oliver Chadwick in a press release.
“So we see the story as one of pushing against constraints and having to pull back rather than one of violent collapse.”
But another even larger Easter Island mystery remains — how the residents were able to erect giant stone statures. With the culture’s rapid disappearance, the secret of how the 887 monolithic stone statues ended up on the island was lost with it. Some have theorized that giant teams of men dragged the stones into place using rope and a complex pulley system and others believe they may have used rope to make the statues rock back and forth, almost walking into place.