A new report shows that the Rapa Nuians, the native inhabitants of Easter Island (Rapa Nui), were not responsible for the collapse of their population and society due to over exploitation of natural resources and the destruction of the rain forest on their island. That erroneous view was popularized by Jared Diamond in his 2005 book titled “Collapse.”
As Bruce Bower reports in the Jan. 25 issue of Science News, the anthropologist Maria Mulrooney has published the results of her studies of the Rapa Nui culture (Journal of Archeological Science, December 2013) based on new radiocarbon dates from archeological sites on the island. She has concluded that after the clear cutting of the forest in the 1500s, to make room for agricultural production, the population of Rapa Nui remained sufficiently vibrant to carry on food production and continue their cultural development.
Exactly when the Rapa Nui arrived on Easter Island is unknown but it was on or before 1200 A.D. or so. Mulrooney maintains they had a thriving culture which was still going strong even after their “discovery” by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday, 1722. This would indicate that they had not suffered” collapse” as a result of forest clearance.
Roggeveen reported that the island had about 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants. He was also the first to report on the moai – the giant statues (erected as religious symbols as part of an ancestor cult) for which the island is famous. They were all in place and standing when he was visiting the island (for less than two weeks). In his short time there he managed to kill a dozen or so natives and so his estimate of the population may be incorrect as many people fled and hid out until after he left.
The Spanish showed up in 1770, claimed the island for King Carlos III, then sailed away. The moai were all standing and the people were still engaged in agriculture. When Captain Cook showed up in 1774, he noticed some of the moai had fallen but there was no sign of cultural “collapse.”
Bower quotes Mulrooney as saying, “Deforestation did not equal societal failure on Rapi Nui. We should celebrate the remarkable achievements of this island civilization.”
Yet the culture did end up destroyed. After Captain Cook’s visit, Europeans visited more regularly in the 19th century. It has been suggested that Rapa Nui’s decline may have been caused by the introduction of European diseases. By the early 1800s most of the moai had been toppled and the society had broken up into warring factions.
Peruvian slavers invaded in the 1860s and carried away 1,500 of the 2,000 or so Rapa Nuians into bondage in the mines of Peru. By 1878 only 111 natives were still living on the island. Some 97 percent of the cultural memory of the people had been lost after contact with the Europeans. The greatest loss may have been that of rongorongo, the native writing system of Rapa Nui and the only writing system created by any Polynesian group. All of those who knew the writing system died in the mines of Peru or from European-introduced tuberculosis which ravaged the survivors.
Chile annexed the island in 1888. The Rapa Nui were given citizenship in 1966 but they no longer rule on their island. Of the 6,000 or so people living on the island today about 3,600 are Rapa Nui. The archeologist Carl Lipo is quoted as saying, “The idea of societal collapse on Rapa Nui has long been assumed but there is no scientific basis for it.” He is referring to a self-induced collapse. Their traditional culture was destroyed, and the people today are trying to reinvigorate it, but it is a bum rap to blame them for the loss of their own civilization.
Photo: Statues on Easter Island. Ian Sewell/Wikipedia (CC)