Rethinking Easter Island’s Historic ‘Collapse’

Easter Island’s colossal statues loom large—both practically and figuratively—in the well-liked creativity. The substantial heads and torsos dot the landscape like stone sentinels, standing guard over the isle’s treeless, grassy expanse.

The statues have influenced popular speculation, awe, and ponder for centuries. But the island, known as Rapa Nui by its Indigenous individuals, has also captured the world’s creativity for an solely distinctive rationale.

Rapa Nui is normally found as a cautionary example of societal collapse. In this tale, manufactured well-liked by geographer Jared Diamond’s bestselling book Collapse, the Indigenous individuals of the island, the Rapanui, so wrecked their ecosystem that, by all-around 1600, their modern society fell into a downward spiral of warfare, cannibalism, and populace decrease. These catastrophes, the collapse narrative explains, resulted in the destruction of the social and political structures that were being in spot for the duration of precolonial occasions, while the individuals of Rapa Nui endure and persist on the island to the existing working day.

In recent several years, researchers operating on the island have questioned this prolonged-approved tale. For example, anthropologist Terry Hunt and archaeologist Carl Lipo, who have examined the island’s archaeology and cultural background for several several years, have suggested an alternative hypothesis that the Rapanui did not succumb to a downward spiral of self-destruction but rather practiced resiliency, cooperation, and maybe even a diploma of environmental stewardship.

Now new proof from Hunt, Lipo, and their colleagues, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, lends credence to their ideas. This proof suggests that the individuals of the island continued to thrive, as indicated by the continued building of the stone platforms, called ahu, on which the legendary statues stand, even just after the 1600s.

“Our investigate demonstrates that statue platform building and use did not end prior to European arrival in 1722,” states Robert DiNapoli, a doctoral scholar in anthropology at the University of Oregon, who led the research.

This getting, drawing on new statistical solutions and excavation do the job, suggests that the Rapanui were being not destitute when the initially Europeans arrived. It is hence probable that it was the newcomers from Europe who contributed to the island’s societal collapse in the several years to come.

The new do the job is controversial, and not everyone is convinced. But if DiNapoli and his team are proper, the well-liked tale of Rapa Nui’s decrease, as described by Diamond, requires to be rethought and its heroes and villains reconfigured. Rather of the Rapanui hastening their own destruction prior to European contact, it is probable that the individuals of the island might have been the victims of European exploration and exploitation.

Rapa Nui is one of the most remote islands in the earth. A little speck in the eastern Pacific, it sits additional than two,000 miles west of South America and is about one,200 miles from its nearest island neighbor, Pitcairn Island.

Archaeologists have documented at the very least 360 ahu, most of which cluster along the island’s shoreline. They range in configuration, while most are usually rectangular in form and are manufactured of basaltic stones neatly equipped collectively. In addition to their use as statue platforms, the ahu functioned as shrines and areas of burial.

DiNapoli and his colleagues applied existing radiocarbon dates from preceding excavations at 11 distinctive ahu web pages. They employed what is known as Bayesian analyses, which enable researchers to product the chance of specific functions, to develop a additional specific timeline of building things to do at each and every web site.

The new investigate indicates that ahu building commenced quickly just after the initially Polynesian settlers arrived on the island and continued even just after European contact in 1722. This timeline argues in opposition to the hypothesized societal collapse transpiring all-around 1600.

The downturn of the islanders, DiNapoli and his colleagues claim, commenced only just after Europeans ushered in a period characterised by illness, murder, slave raiding, and other conflicts.

Not all Rapa Nui professionals concur with DiNapoli and his colleagues’ solutions or conclusions. Jo Anne Van Tilburg, an archaeologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, is skeptical that all the radiocarbon dates applied by the team reflect especially ahu-associated setting up functions.

Van Tilburg also argues that Diamond’s environmental destruction argument stays a practical speculation. “The collapse narrative as these authors explain it is a straw male they have set up that does not precisely reflect the precise speculation,” she states.

If Europeans were being to blame for the decrease of Rapanui modern society, it would be related to what transpired to Indigenous peoples in other places.

In limited, Van Tilburg believes the new do the job is missing some of the nuances of Diamond’s first concept. Diamond hardly ever described the collapse as a one-time occasion, Van Tilburg explains, but somewhat as a sequence of functions that eventually resulted in destructive societal changes that were being hastened by European contact.

Diamond’s speculation is based mostly on a blend of oral custom, proof of island deforestation, and the do the job of preceding researchers, this sort of as the Norwegian explorer and ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl. (Heyerdahl gained fame in 1947 for sailing a balsa raft, the Kon-Tiki, to examination the concept that South People might have colonized Polynesia.)

Early twentieth-century oral historians operating on Rapa Nui theorized that an internecine clash had occurred between islanders. Heyerdahl afterwards popularized his perception that this warfare, merged with deforestation, resulted in the collapse of the island’s social hierarchies and several traditions, this sort of as the setting up of stone platforms and statues.

The fate of Rapa Nui has been heatedly debated over the last a number of several years with the advancement of new theories and modern procedures, this sort of as Bayesian solutions. For several archaeologists, the pre-contact collapse concept is ripe for questioning.

Talking of the investigate performed by DiNapoli’s team, for example, Seth Quintus, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa, who was not associated in the research, states, “Their do the job provides to the increasing body of proof that has gathered over the last 10 several years that the preceding narratives of collapse on Easter Island are not correct—and want to be rethought.”

If Europeans were being to blame for the decrease of Rapanui modern society, that clarification is related to what transpired to other Indigenous peoples in other places during the earth, DiNapoli notes. From that point of view, he states, the well-liked tale of environmental destruction has obscured the islanders’ successes.

“The diploma to which their cultural heritage was passed on—and is however existing today by language, arts, and cultural practices—is really notable and extraordinary,” DiNapoli states. “This diploma of resilience has been disregarded because of to the collapse narrative and deserves recognition.”

This do the job initially appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND four. license. Browse the original below.