Easter Island is one of the most far-flung Pacific islands to be settled by Polynesians. I’ve thought of the place as a textbook case of overpopulation, a group overrunning this small, sealed habitat and destroying their environment before Europeans arrived.
Those Europeans, who first landed on the island in 1722, estimated that no more than 3,000 people lived on Easter Island, and wondered how such a small population could have erected the 900 moais, or giant sculpted heads, that make the place famous.
Using soil samples and estimates of sweet potato crops (a primary food), a new study suggests over 17,000 people once inhabited the island. The 80% decline seems to reinforce the view that islanders exhausted their soil, destroyed their own forests until they could no longer build fishing boats, and so were doomed.
But other research examined modern and historical samples to discover that islanders harvested fish at about the same rate throughout their history, and that farming practices included enriching the soil.
Prehistoric Easter Islanders had extensive knowledge of how to overcome poor soil fertility, improve environmental conditions, and create a sustainable food supply. These activities demonstrate considerable adaptation and resilience to environmental challenges — a finding that is inconsistent with an ‘ecocide’ narrative.
So what caused the population crash? Perhaps more research will discover the truth.