For many years, Earth scientists and others have used Easter Island and its inhabitants, the Rapa Nui, as a lesson in what can happen when a parcel of land is overpopulated and thus overused—resources diminish and the people starve to death (or resort to cannibalism as some have suggested). But now, the researchers with this new effort suggest that thinking may be wrong.
Scientists believe Polynesians first settled on Easter Island sometime around 1200 AD—over the course of the next several hundred years the settlers became the Rapa Nui, famous for the massive maoi statues that were erected. Over that time period, the people cut down most of the trees on the northern part of the island and a lot of the other vegetation. That led to the loss of nutrient rich topsoil due to erosion and the idea that the people began to starve to death.
To better understand what actually occurred both before and after Europeans arrived in the 1700's, the researchers used a technique known as obsidian hydration dating on artifacts found at various sites on the northern part of the island where the Rapa Nui lived. That allowed them to gain insights into how the land in that area had been used during different time periods. From that they were able to construct a timeline that showed where the people were living over the course of hundreds of years. And that, the researchers report, showed that rather than a population crash due to starvation, there were population shifts that reflected changing weather patterns. Some areas did see population losses before European contact, and some actually saw initial gains afterwards. The population did see a dramatic decline, of course, sometime thereafter as the Rapa Nui people became exposed to European diseases such as smallpox and syphilis and as many were taken and sold into slavery. This means, the team concludes, that there is little evidence of population collapse prior to European contact.
Yirka, Bob. 2015. “Study suggests history of Rapa Nui on Easter Island far more complex than thought”. Phys.org. Posted: January 6, 2015. Available online: http://phys.org/news/2015-01-history-rapa-nui-easter-island.html