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 Europeans arrived on Easter Island, the Rapa Nui population had already dropped to fewer 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 internal warfare was a contributing factor. New research has debunked many of the longstanding views about the "collapse" of one of the world's most intriguing islands.

In fact, by February 2020, the Journal of Archeological Science published a study that proposed the Rapa Nui people "were still actively building new Moai figures, and maintaining existing ones, up until at least 1750," long outliving previously held beliefs about when this civilization was eradicated. The statues were not found in ruins until 1770, and "the degree to which [the Rapa Nui people's] cultural heritage was passed on" is often overlooked because of the mystery surrounding their collapse. 

  • A Tropical Paradise

    A Tropical Paradise
    Photo: Jmunobus / Wikimedia Commons

    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

    Moving The Moai Required A Lot Of Wood
    Photo: Pixabay

    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

    Rats, Rats, And More Rats
    Photo: Public Domain / Pixabay

    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.