What Happened to the Rapa Nui?

What really happened to the native Polynesians who lived on Easter Island?

Researchers have argued that the Rapa Nui, as the islanders were known, died out after using up the natural resources on their 63-square-mile speck of land in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Others say the island’s population collapsed after Europeans brought foreign diseases and took many survivors as slaves.

New research suggests another possibility: that harsh environmental conditions on the island, from variations in rainfall to declining soil quality, caused a decline, but not a total collapse, in the native population before the Europeans arrived in 1722.

The researchers analyzed and dated 428 obsidian tools and flakes of obsidian rock found at various archaeological sites on the island. By dating the tools and rocks, the researchers were able to determine when and how the ancient Rapa Nui population used land and natural resources in different parts of the island.

What did the researchers find? Land use and resources varied across the island, moreso reflecting environmental constraints than an abuse of the environment.

The researchers note in their paper that their work could be useful in the study of other prehistoric societies that experienced sudden collapses.

The paper was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on January 5.

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