New Research Further Erodes Rapa Nui “Ecocide”

Easter Island Ecology Rapa Nui
Moai on Easter Island. Photo Credit: Terry Hunt

A mystery on par with their imposing Moai is the ultimate fate Easter Island’s ancient Rapa Nui people. They've been accused of committing “ecocide,” but new research continues to chip away at the idea of self induced environmental destruction. 


Ecocide is a fun way of saying the ancient Rapa Nui over exploited their resources and then couldn't feed the population. Specifically, they are said to have decimated all of the trees which meant they couldn't build canoes, which meant they couldn't fish, which meant they over farmed the land, ruining the soils. Forced to turn to the Pacific rat for the bulk of their dietary protein, the ancient Rapa Nui society collapsed.


Tidy little idea, but an international team of archaeologists led by scientists from the University of Bristol painstakingly reconstructed the ancient Rapa Nui diet by analyzing a wide array of carbon and various isotopes recovered from plant, animal, and human remains, and found a different story. 


Researchers found the Rapa Nui people were sophisticated farmers, growing crops in agriculturally infertile soils by creating fertilizer out of bedrock.  The Rapa Nui also incorporated a substantial amount of marine protein into their diets, even after deforestation.  The research team found no evidence to support the claim that rats were a substantial subsistence resource. 


The group’s research was published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.23273.

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