New Research Rewrites the Demise of Easter Island

By Katherine J. Wu/Smithsonianmag.com

The story of Easter Island—home to the famous moai monoliths—is a tragic one. But depending on the individual you ask, the harbingers of its early demise aren’t always the same.

In one version, the island—a remote outpost thousands of miles off the western coast of South America—was settled in the 13th century by a small group of Polynesians. Over time, the migrants papered the landscape, once rich with trees and rolling hills, with crop fields and monoliths. The transformation eroded the nutrient-rich soil, catapulting the island onto a path of destruction. As the trees dwindled, so did the people who had felled them: By the time Dutch explorers arrived on Easter Island in 1722, this early society had long since collapsed.

But in recent years, evidence has mounted for an alternative narrative—one that paints the inhabitants of the island they called Rapa Nui not as exploiters of ecosystems, but as sustainable farmers who were still thriving when Europeans first made contact. In this account, other factors conspired to end a pivotal era on Easter Island.

The latest research to support this idea, published recently in the Journal of Archaeological Science, comes from an analysis of the …

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