The indigenous people of Easter Island, the Rapa Nui, experienced a societal collapse after the 17th century because they stripped the island clean of its natural resources. Or at least, that’s the leading theory. An analysis of the tools used by the Rapa Nui to build their iconic stone statues suggests a very different conclusion, pointing to the presence of a highly organized and cohesive society.
Located 2,300 miles (3,700 km) west of Chile, Easter Island is one of the most remote places on Earth. The 66-square-mile (170-square-kilometer) island was first inhabited by a group of Pacific Islanders between 1,100 and 900 years ago, with these people forming the backbone of a civilization that would last for hundreds of years. The Rapa Nui people are famous, of course, for those stunning humanoid statues known as moai, the tallest of which measure 33 feet (10 meter) high and weigh upward of 81 tons.
At some point before the 1700s, however, this civilization experienced a collapse. The conventional theory is that the Rapa Nui people wiped the island clean of its trees, causing widespread erosion and food shortages, which in turn created civil strife and internal violence. Writing in the LA Times back in 2012, Thomas H. Maugh II said:
UCLA anthropologist Jared Diamond famously detailed what the called the “ecocide” of Rapa Nui in his 2005 book “Collapse.” When Polynesians first settled the island about AD 800, they had the misfortune to select one that was dry, cool and remote—and thus poorly fertilized by windblown dust or volcanic ash. They chopped down forests to provide wood for construction and for moving the moai, and the trees didn’t return.
The denuded landscape allowed winds to blow off the topsoil, and fertility fell sharply. When the natives no longer had wood for building fishing canoes, they killed and ate all the birds. Before the Dutch arrived at the island on Easter Sunday in 1722, the population had descended into cannibalism and barbarity. Diamond called it “the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by over-exploiting its own resources.”
New research published today in the Journal of Pacific Archaeology is now offering a different perspective, showing that the Rapa Nui people maintained a thriving tool-building industry during the time of their alleged descent into “barbarity.”