New Research Refutes Popular Idea that Easter Island’s ‘Ecocide’ Was Self-Inflicted

A recent study published in Science Advances challenges the widely held belief that Easter Islanders’ ancient rock gardening practices led to their downfall.

The study, titled “Island-wide characterization of agricultural production challenges the demographic collapse hypothesis for Rapa Nui,” explains that Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, “is often used as an example of how overexploitation of limited resources resulted in a catastrophic population collapse.”

Hundreds of years ago, farmers on the island engaged in “slash and burn” agriculture, clearing palm trees and setting them on fire to create farmland. They then practiced rock gardening to enhance soil fertility.

According to a prevalent myth, the islanders’ focus on rock farming, along with the construction of numerous colossal stone statues, led to the collapse of their civilization. When Europeans arrived in 1722, the island’s population was reportedly smaller than it had been in the past.

“A vital component of this narrative is that the rapid rise and fall of pre-contact Rapanui population growth rates was driven by the construction and overexploitation of once extensive rock gardens,” the article’s abstract section explains. “However, the extent of island-wide rock gardening, while key for understanding food systems and demography, must be better understood.”

Contrary to the popular belief that rock gardening was detrimental to soil health, the study suggests that the practice “enhanced plant productivity by increasing available soil nutrients and maintaining soil moisture.”

“Given the benefits rock gardening has for increasing soil productivity and, thus, plant growth, its practice was a vital part of pre-contact Rapanui subsistence,” the article states. “Nearly half of the Rapanui diet consisted of terrestrial foods.”

“In this regard, measuring the extent of rock gardens is critical for understanding the island’s pre-contact environmental carrying capacity.”

Researchers also employed shortwave infrared (SWIR) satellite imagery and other techniques to determine that Easter Island’s population was likely smaller than previously thought, challenging the myth that the island’s 1722 population was significantly smaller than it had been centuries earlier.

“Our estimates suggest that the maximum population supported by rock gardening is not ~17,000 as claimed through Ladefoged et al.’s rock gardening calculations but just 3901 using our measurements,” the study states.

Despite research pointing to a different conclusion, the study’s authors acknowledge that the myth persists outside of academia. 

“Despite recent archaeological literature debunking ideas about Malthusian population overshoot, the premise that Rapanui society caused its own demise from unsustainable resource use and uncontrolled population increases has been widely popularized,” the article states. 

“While many researchers working on the island have shifted their narratives away from the assumptions of a pre-European collapse, the story remains prominent in disciplines such as ecology, paleoecology, and mathematics.”

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