How The Civilization On Easter Island Collapsed

Easter Island is a Chilean island located in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. It’s most widely known for the incredible stone statues – called moai – that were created and scattered across the island by its early inhabitants, the Rapa Nui. When the Polynesians first settled on the island between 700 and 1100 CE, they developed a thriving society of nearly 15,000 people. But it wasn’t until the first Europeans visited the island, under the direction of a Dutch explorer named Jacob Roggeveen, that the name Easter Island was adopted, as he first happened upon the mysterious island on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722.

By the time that Europeans arrived on Easter Island, the Rapa Nui population had already dropped down to less than 3,000 people – one-fifth of what it had been at its height. And by 1877 – just over 150 years after their first contact with Europeans – only 111 Rapa Nui remained. What happened to this civilization? There are many theories as to why the population of the Rapa Nui community dropped so dramatically. Some have blamed environmental issues, while others believe that internal warfare was a contributing factor. However, new research has debunked many of the longstanding views about the “collapse” of one of the world’s most intriguing islands.


A Tropical Paradise

When the Polynesians first settled on Easter Island, they found themselves in a blooming tropical paradise covered in a palm forest and inhabited by around 30 different species of birds. While the soil was low in nutrients, the island’s coastal plains made it possible to grow crops such as taros, yams, and sweet potatoes. Over time, the Rapa Nui were able to create a complex society that included chiefdoms and the construction of large stone sculptures known as moai. However, when the population of the island had nearly gone extinct by the mid-19th century, scientists were baffled.

Slash And Burn Agriculture Destroyed Resources

Around 1,200 CE, a small group of Polynesian farmers settled on Easter Island, a tiny 63-square-mile island that was then covered in as many as 16 million trees. According to one popular theory, the group practiced slash and burn agriculture and as their population grew they had to burn down more and more trees in the palm forests to make room for crops. Before long, there were too many inhabitants and too few trees. Jared Diamond, the author of the book Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed, wrote that the island is the “clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.”

Moving The Moai Required A Lot Of Wood

The islanders reportedly used wood from the palm forest to clear the paths that they used to transport their giant moai. One theory states that after clearing the land for crops, they used the leftover logs to both move the huge stone sculptures and build their deep-sea fishing canoes. The question is, did this excessive use of resources lead to their starvation? In 1774, when Captain James Cook visited the island he and his crew noted that the Rapa Nui were living in very poor conditions, their canoes worn ragged and pieced together haphazardly.

The Now-Debunked Cannibalism Theory

For many years, it was believed that the Easter Island inhabitants fought with one another and eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive. The long-standing theory was that the civilization collapsed before the Europeans had even arrived and that their numbers had already dwindled significantly. As a result of extreme deforestation, a rapidly expanding population, and warfare, famine became widespread and people ate their opponents’s dead bodies to survive. However, according to research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, cannibalism did not actually contribute to the civilization’s downfall.

Rats, Rats, And More Rats

Two anthropologists, Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, from the University of Hawaii, have their own theory about the collapse of the Easter Island civilization. In their book The Statues That Walked, they argue that fossil hunters and paleobotanists have not found any concrete evidence of slash and burn farming being used on Easter Island; however, the anthropologists do acknowledge that the trees across the island seemed to have died in large numbers, which they believe was caused by rats. When the stowaway rodents arrived on the island with the Polynesians, they multiplied voraciously and decimated the trees.

The Topsoil Washed Away – Were The Moai To Blame?

Unfortunately, the rapid loss of trees on the island adversely affected the topsoil, which slowly washed away each time it rained. And as the land eroded, the Rapa Nui struggled to grow enough crops to feed themselves. They also quickly ran out of the wood that they needed to build their canoes, which would have helped them relocate to another island when things continued to get worse. It’s unclear if they blamed the moai for their problems, but the islanders vandalized them by poking out their eyes, toppling them over, and even decapitating them.

Peruvian Slave Raids

When foreigners first began visiting the Rapa Nui, the islanders were excited to learn about the strangers. While they thought the travelers were strange, they also appreciated the new source of clothing and goods from across the ocean. Unfortunately, some visitors traveled to the island with the intent of making the Rapa Nui their slaves. The Peruvian slave raids started in the 1860s, with Easter Island being a prime target due to its location. An estimated 2,000 Rapa Nui were captured during this time, and those who managed to make it to Peru battled numerous diseases and were overworked. As a result, nearly 90 percent died within a few years of being enslaved.

Smallpox, Syphilis, And Other Diseases

When the Europeans arrived on Easter Island they brought various diseases with them, including smallpox and syphilis. Some scientists believe that the islanders were able to survive when the trees disappeared, but that their population suffered most dramatically when the Dutch and English came to Rapa Nui. According to the CDC, on average, 3 out of every 10 people who got smallpox died, plus it is extremely contagious and disfiguring. Syphilis, on the other hand, is a sexually transmitted disease, and while it’s treatable today, people frequently died from it in the 18th century.

Warfare Using Obsidian Spear Tips

When Captain Cook arrived on Easter Island in 1774, he quickly spotted the Rapa Nui carrying lances and spears with sharp, pointed pieces of black glassy lava attached to the ends (obsidian). It was assumed that the triangular tips, known as mata’a, were used for warfare; however, once researchers analyzed the artifacts thought to be spear points, they determined that they were actually used as tools. Carl Lipo, professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, explained: “We found that when you look at the shape of these things, they just don’t look like weapons at all,” said Lipo. “When you can compare them to European weapons or weapons found anywhere around the world when there are actually objects used for warfare, they’re very systematic in their shape. They have to do their job really well. Not doing well is risking death.” He added that the mata’a are found all across the island as they were used for tasks such as tattooing or plant processing.

A New God And Rebuilding The Culture

When the Rapa Nui started running out of food, different fractions started to form on the island. One group became known as the Birdman Cult, and they turned to a new god for help: Makemake. Through their efforts, the cult helped to rebuild the culture and population of Rapa Nui, with crops such as sweet potatoes again beginning to flourish.

Changing Weather Patterns

According to research conducted by Christopher M. Stevenson of Virginia Commonwealth University, saying that the Rapa Nui civilization “collapsed” may be using too strong of a term. According to Stevenson, “Our paper evaluates a long-standing debate and examines whether the prehistoric population of Rapa Nui experienced a significant demographic collapse prior to European contact… This analysis demonstrates that the concept of ‘collapse’ is a misleading characterization of prehistoric human population dynamics.” The researchers determined that while food production declined, it wasn’t disastrous for people as the population of the island didn’t decline due to starvation, but as a result of changing weather patterns.

An Alternative Explanation For The Civilization’s “Collapse”

Perhaps the Rapa Nui didn’t have a very large population to begin with? Archeologist Carl Lipo and his colleagues, who studied Easter Island for years, don’t believe that the 3,000 people that Captain Roggeveen met in 1722 were the remaining members of a once great civilization. However, at the time, it was inconceivable that such a small group of people could create and move the moai. Lipo and the researchers think it was a normal sized population that was able to construct and relocate the moai using special engineering techniques common to ancient peoples.