Research reveals Rapa Nui people cultivated and managed crops

Research by an international team, including SOEST geology professor Brian Popp, has shed new light on the fate of the ancient people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

“It’s been proposed that vast forests of giant palm trees were cut down by the people of Rapa Nui leaving them among other things without canoes. With no canoes, they could no longer fish so they ate chickens, rats and agricultural crops. However, Rapa Nui is not a tropical paradise with fertile soils so crop productivity decreased. This ‘ecocide’ hypothesis attributes societal collapse on Rapa Nui to human overexploitation of natural resources. That’s the traditional narrative,” said Terry Hunt, dean of the Clark Honors College and professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon and co-author of the study.

This new study challenges that interpretation and instead shows that the ancient population ate roughly equal amounts of seafood and terrestrial resources. Additionally, the team discovered that agricultural crops consumed must have been planted in soils that were deliberately managed and manipulated to provide better yields.

“This research highlights the unique and varied environmental adaptations that Pacific Islanders have shown through time,” said Catrine Jarman, lead author of the study and graduate student at the University of Bristol. “Polynesians developed sustainable economies in ways that we are now better understanding through interdisciplinary research. Lessons from the past and from traditional island societies have value and relevance today.”

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