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New analysis contradicts hypothesis of “ecocide” on Easter Island

New study of remains suggests that the people of Easter Island did not die due to the changes caused to the environment. Chemical analysis shows that the Rapa Nui were very resilient and knew how to adapt so the story of Easter Island could be much more complex and surprising than previously thought. 

A new research co-conducted by faculty at Binghamton University, State University of New York suggests that the demise of the Rapa Nui people had little to do with a supposed “ecocide” that hit the island.

“The traditional story is that over time the people of Rapa Nui used up their resources and started to run out of food,” said Binghamton University Professor of Anthropology Carl Lipo. “One of the resources that they supposedly used up was trees that were growing on the island. Those trees provided canoes and, as a result of the lack of canoes, they could no longer fish. So they started to rely more and more on land food. As they relied on land food, productivity went down because of soil erosion, which led to crop failures…Painting the picture of this sort of catastrophe. That’s the traditional narrative.”

Chemical analysis on the human, faunal and botanical remains form sites on the island show that around half the protein in human diets came from marine sources, higher than previous estimates. These findings point to concerted efforts to manipulate agricultural soils, and suggest the prehistoric Rapa Nui population had extensive knowledge of how to overcome poor soil fertility, improve environmental conditions, and create a sustainable food supply. This shows an increased adaptation of local populations to changing environments and are inconsistent with the “ecocide” hypothesis.


“We found that there’s a fairly significant marine diet, over time, throughout history and that people were eating marine resources, and it wasn’t as though they only had food from terrestrial resources,” said Lipo. “We also learned that what they did get from terrestrial resources came from very modified soils, that they were enriching the soils in order to grow the crops. That supports the argument we’ve made in our previous work, that these people came up with am ingenious strategy in enriching the soils by adding bedrock to the surface and inside the soil to crate, essentially, fertilizer to support their populations, and that forest loss really isn’t a catastrophe as previously described.”

The findings also suggest that the history of Easter Island is more complex than previously thought and further research is needed in order to understand what happened with the local population.

“The Rapa Nui people were, not surprisingly, smart about how they used their resources,” he said. “And all the misunderstanding comes from our preconceptions about what subsistence should look like, basically European farmers thinking, ‘Well, what should a farm look like?’ And it didn’t look like what they thought, so they assumed something bad had happened, when in fact it was a perfectly smart thing to do. It continues to support the new narrative that we’ve been finding for the past ten years.”

Sylvia Jacob