Polynesian society thrived despite having created environmental challenges
Easter Island’s Polynesian society is known for having created huge, humanlike statues and for supposedly folding in the late 1600s after overexploiting limited land. But that proposed societal collapse may never have happened, a new study suggests.
Despite largely clearing the island of its palm forest by roughly 1550, groups on Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, contained enough people to farm coastal and inland sites until well after Europeans first arrived in 1722, says anthropologist Mara Mulrooney of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
“Deforestation did not equal societal failure on Rapa Nui,” Mulrooney says. “We should celebrate the remarkable achievements of this island civilization.”
Mulrooney’s analysis of 313 radiocarbon dates from structures and settlements across Rapa Nui appears in the December Journal of Archaeological Science.
Starting at least years ago, archaeologists proposed that slash-and-burn agriculture wiped out palm forests and robbed the soil of nutrients, and the depletion of natural resources triggered a social implosion on Rapa Nui before Europeans arrived. Geographer Jared Diamond of UCLA popularized that scenario in his 2005 book Collapse.
M.A. Mulrooney. An island-wide assessment of the chronology of settlement and land use on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) based on radiocarbon data. Journal of Archaeological Science. Vol. 40, December 2013, p. 4377. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2013.06.020.
B. Bower. Polynesian latecomers: Easter Islanders took fast track to culture. Science News. Vol. 169, March 11, 2006, p. 148.
T. Hunt and C. Lipo. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island. Simon and Schuster, 2011.
J. Diamond. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin, 2005.