Easter Island has long been used as an example of ecocide, where a once-prosperous group of Rapa Nui Polynesians exhausted the island’s resources and suffered a population collapse. They are thought to have cut down all of their trees in order to transport the impressive ‘moai’ statues leaving them with eroded, loose soil and without wood for fishing boats. According to the cautionary tale, the population descended into civil war – and in some retellings even resorted to cannibalism. It’s a tale that gets continually peddled. The only problem is, it isn’t true.
‘If you look at the chemical signature of the remains, it becomes clear that this was a population that knew how to manipulate the soil and harvest from the sea,’ says Cat Jarman, who has recently published two papers on data she gleaned from ancient islander’s rib fragments. By studying the collagen in the ribs, Jarman has been able to analyse eating habits, going some way towards clearing their reputation for unsustainability.
‘The information we have found from these remains is inconsistent with the ‘ecocide’ narrative’ says Jarman. ‘For one, the soil on the island is very nutrient poor, but the islanders’ remains show high levels of nitrogen isotopes.’ This suggests that the population was eating crops grown from deliberately fertilised soils – showing that the Rapa Nui had extensive knowledge of how to grow food from hostile environments. The high ratio of carbon isotopes, meanwhile, show that the island’s predecessors were also ample fishermen. Jarman found that around half of their diet was made up of seafood.
As for the trees, it’s likely that invasive species were responsible for their destruction. One theory from archaeologists at the University of Hawai‘i is that a colony of rats slowly eliminated the palm trees by eating the seeds and saplings. ‘When you look at the evidence, it becomes less and less likely that the islanders caused their own demise,’ says Jarman. ‘There’s no real evidence of a population decline prior to the first European contact in the early 1700s, before that it seems they lived sustainably.’
There is now a growing school of thought that the largest population collapse in Rapa Nui history occurred with European contact, which brought with it the catastrophic diseases and the slave trade.
This was published in the December 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.