Not a fan of rats.David Madison / Getty Images
The earliest Polynesian colonizers brought with them another culprit, namely the Polynesian rat. It seems likely that rats ate both palm nuts and sapling trees, preventing the forests from growing back. But despite this deforestation, my own research on the diet of the prehistoric Rapanui found they consumed more seafood and were more sophisticated and adaptable farmers than previously thought.
Blame slavers – not lumberjacks
So what – if anything – happened to the native population for its numbers to dwindle and for statue carving to end? And what caused the reports of warfare and conflict in the early 20th century?
The real answer is more sinister. Throughout the 19th century, South American slave raids took away as much as half of the native population. By 1877, the Rapanui numbered just 111. Introduced disease, destruction of property, and enforced migration by European traders further decimated the natives and lead to increased conflict among those remaining. Perhaps this, instead, was the warfare the ethnohistorical accounts refer to and what ultimately stopped the statue carving.
It had been thought that South Americans made contact with Rapa Nui centuries before the Europeans, as their DNA can be detected in modern native inhabitants. I have been involved in a new study, however, led by paleogeneticist Lars Fehren-Schmitz, which questions this timeline. We analyzed Rapanui human remains dating to before and after European contact. Our work, published in the journal Current Biology, found no significant gene flow between South America and Easter Island before 1722. Instead, the considerable recent disruption to the island’s population may have impacted on modern DNA.
Perhaps, then, the takeaway from Rapa Nui should not be a story of ecocide and the Malthusian population collapse. Instead, it should be a lesson in how sparse evidence, a fixation with “mysteries”, and a collective amnesia for historic atrocities caused a sustainable and surprisingly well-adapted population to be falsely blamed for their own demise.
And those statues? We know how they moved them; the local population knew all along. They walked – all we needed to do was ask.
This article was originally published on The Conversation by Catrine Jarman at the University of Bristol. Read the original article here.