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New Research Rewrites the Demise of Easter Island

Yet another spate of evidence suggests the Rapa Nui people were going strong long after Europeans first arrived in 1722

The moai at Easter island, built by the Rapa Nui people (TravelingOtter via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0)
smithsonianmag.com

The story of Easter Island—home to the famous moai monoliths—is a tragic one. But depending on the individual you ask, the harbingers of its early demise aren’t always the same.

In one version, the island—a remote outpost thousands of miles off the western coast of South America—was settled in the 13th century by a small group of Polynesians. Over time, the migrants papered the landscape, once rich with trees and rolling hills, with crop fields and monoliths. The transformation eroded the nutrient-rich soil, catapulting the island onto a path of destruction. As the trees dwindled, so did the people who had felled them: By the time Dutch explorers arrived on Easter Island in 1722, this early society had long since collapsed.

But in recent years, evidence has mounted for an alternative narrative—one that paints the inhabitants of the island they called Rapa Nui not as exploiters of ecosystems, but as sustainable farmers who were still thriving when Europeans first made contact. In this account, other factors conspired to end a pivotal era on Easter Island.

The latest research to support this idea, published recently in the Journal of Archaeological Science, comes from an analysis of the island’s ahu—the platforms supporting the moai, which honor the Rapa Nui’s ancestors. Using a combination of radiocarbon dating and statistical modeling, a team of researchers has now found that the spectacular statues’ construction continued well past 1722, post-dating the supposed decline of the people behind the moai.

“Monument-building and investment were still important parts of [these people’s] lives when [the European] visitors arrived,” says study author Robert J. DiNapoli, an anthropologist at the University of Oregon, in a statement.

Data amassed from 11 Easter Island sites shows that the Rapa Nui people began assembling the moai sometime between the early 14th and mid-15th centuries, continuing construction until at least 1750, reports Sarah Cascone for artnet News. These numbers fall in line with historical documents from the Dutch and Spanish, who recorded observations of rituals featuring the monuments through the latter part of the 18th century. The only true ceiling for the moai’s demise is the year 1774, when British explorer James Cook arrived to find the statues in apparent ruins. And despite previous accounts, researchers have failed to find evidence pointing to any substantial population decline prior to the 18th century, writes Catrine Jarman for the Conversation.

While the Europeans’ stays “were short and their descriptions brief and limited,” their writings “provide useful information to help us think about the timing of building,” says DiNapoli in the statement.

The revised timeline of the monoliths also speaks to their builders’ resilience. As foreign forces came and went from the island, they brought death, disease, destruction and slavery within its borders, explains study author Carl Lipo, an anthropologist at Binghamton University, in the statement.

“Yet,” he adds, “the Rapa Nui people—following practices that provided them great stability and success over hundreds of years—continue their traditions in the face of tremendous odds.”

Eventually, however, a still-mysterious combination of factors shrank the population, and by 1877, just over 100 people remained on Easter Island, according to the Conversation. (The Rapa Nui, who are still around today, eventually recovered.)

The trees, too, suffered, though not entirely at human hands: The Polynesian rat, an accidental stowaway that arrived with the Rapa Nui and began to gnaw their way through palm nuts and saplings, was likely partly to blame, reported Whitney Dangerfield for Smithsonian magazine in 2007.

But Lipo points out the many ways in which the Rapa Nui have persevered in modern times.

“The degree to which their cultural heritage was passed on—and is still present today through language, arts and cultural practices—is quite notable and impressive,” he says in the statement.

This “overlooked” narrative, Lipo adds, is one that “deserves recognition.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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