LifestyleEaster Island's population mystery solved: No disaster, just few births

Easter Island's population mystery solved: No disaster, just few births

The island is home to nearly 900 statues. The current population is a few thousand.
The island is home to nearly 900 statues. The current population is a few thousand.
Images source: © Wikimedia Commons | Ian Sewell
Ewa Sas

22 June 2024 19:23

Easter Island, known for its majestic stone statues, has puzzled scientists for years. They wondered why the island's population essentially disappeared. This phenomenon has been attributed, among others, to an ecological disaster. As it turns out, reality in this case was very mundane.

Almost everyone associates Easter Island with the famous moai stone statues. One of the theories regarding the demise of the island's population was the theory of an ecosystem collapse. However, as it turns out, this theory can be dismissed.

Easter island. Over 2,000 inhabitants and nearly 900 statues

Easter Island was discovered on 5 April 1772 by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen. It owes its name to the fact that Easter Sunday was celebrated in the Catholic Church then. It is one of the most mysterious regions of the world.

The gigantic collection of nearly 900 moai statues led to their inclusion, along with Rapa Nui National Park (the island's original name), on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

When the island was discovered, it was inhabited by 2,000 to 3,000 people, but explorers believed that up to 10,000 people might have lived there earlier. According to scientists, the cause of the disaster was excessive palm forest deforestation, which supposedly covered up to 70% of the island's area.

Archaeological research proved that the soil destroyed in this way was already susceptible to erosion, and the inhabitants could no longer grow food massively. This led to hunger, cannibalism, and wars, which supposedly resulted in the island's downfall.

Easter Island. Residents were much more resourceful than previously thought

As it turns out, the residents of Rapa Nui were quite resourceful. They also consumed seafood besides sweet potatoes, which they cultivated and ate.

The island's inhabitants cultivated vegetables in fields, but there were significantly fewer fields than previously thought.

Earlier estimates suggested that out of 163 square kilometres (63 sq mi), as much as 21 square kilometres (8 sq mi) were dedicated to rock gardens, which could have fed up to 17,000 people. New research revealed that this area was much smaller at 0.8 square kilometres (0.3 sq mi). This could sustain a population of only around 2,000 individuals. Adding foods such as bananas to their diet could have supported about 3,000 people.

This means that the population was not decimated by disasters. Few people were born on Easter Island, and the region eventually deserted.

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