Indigenous Peoples in Easter Islandby Fernando Vieira
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A common hypothesis is held that the apparent decline of Rapa Nui culture and society before European discovery in 1722 was caused by the over-exploitation of the island’s environment, most notably through deforestation of almost all the island’s trees. The most prominent proponent of this explanation is Jared Diamond who proposes a scenario for the "ecocide" on Easter Island in his 2005 book Collapse.
This idea that Rapa Nui society collapsed came out of the imbalance between general resources present on the island, mainly population, timber and food sources, and the energy- and resource-intensive feat of transporting and raising the moai. Food resources may have been scarcer than in other areas of Polynesia because of factors like the cooler climate, lack of rainfall in comparison to other islands in the area, high winds and a lack of biodiversity, leading to common Polynesian crops not faring as well as they would in other areas of the Pacific. A source of good timber was also noticeably absent from the Island, the tallest, current plant life averaging around 7 feet.
Although Easter Island only currently has 48 different kinds of plants as evidenced by botanical surveys of the island, it once possessed many more, shown through pollen analysis conducted on sediment layers from swamps or ponds. From these samples, 22 no longer present on the island were shown to have existed at some time there. Among these plants was a giant palm, the Rapa Nui Palm, that showed signs of being the largest palm species in the world, eclipsing the size of the Chilean Wine Palm if it were not extinct. There are also signs of Easter Island once possessing a far more diverse collection of fauna. The skeletal remains of 25 different species of nesting bird have been located on the island, but have since been reduced to 16. This trend of extinction and extirpation is a common occurrence when humans populate a new area, because of tendencies to overhunt and overexploit resources.
Deforestation would have caused a decrease in crop yields due to soil erosion, loss of wood as a resource to construct fishing boats, among other things, and would have necessitated a halt to the construction of the moai erected around the island. Diamond hypothesizes that resource scarcity may have led to brutal civil war, creating a drop in population. He further hypothesizes that there were about 7,000 individuals pre-war, which fell to the 2,000 missionaries met when they showed up in the 19th century and conducted the first census of the island.
Others attribute this decline to overpopulation or the introduction of Europeans to the island and the diseases that commonly came with them like smallpox.