After the deforestation of Easter Island, the Rapanui Society continued

After the deforestation of Easter Island, the Rapanui Society continued

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After the deforestation of Easter Island, the Rapanui Society continued

Researcher Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse (2005), believed that the removal of vegetation and overcrowding of rats resulted in enormous deforestation, a significant shortage of resources and food, and, eventually, the collapse of the Rapanui Community of Easter Island, a theory that most mainstream researchers believe.

The Rapa Nui people chiselled away at volcanic stone, carving Moai, monolithic statues built to honour their ancestors. They moved the mammoth blocks of stone—on average 13 feet tall and 14 tons—to different ceremonial structures around the island, a feat that required several days and many men.

In volcanic stone, the Rapa Nui people chiselled away, carving Moai, monolithic sculptures designed to honour their ancestors.

They transported the mammoth stone blocks—on average 13 feet high and 14 tons—to various ceremonial structures across the island, a feat that required several days and many men.

But a recent research on the prehistory of Easter Island (Rapa Nui), undertaken by an international team of scientists and archaeologists from the Museum of Moesgaard in Aarhus, Denmark, the University of Kiel in Germany and the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, has found something off the beaten track.

In 1722 when, on Easter Sunday, Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen discovered the island. He was the first European to discover this enigmatic island. Roggeveen and his crew estimated that there were 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants on the island. Apparently, explorers reported fewer and fewer inhabitants as the years went on, until eventually, the population dwindled to less than 100 within a few decades. Now, it’s estimated the island’s population was around 12,000 at its peak.

In various areas of the island, they found a series of ancient graves that retain traces of red pigment inside.

The new data presented by this study, published in the journal The Holocene, suggests that the story of the Rapanui-collapse could have happened otherwise. Researchers say that the production of reddish pigment continued to be an important aspect of the cultural life of the inhabitants of Pascua despite drastic changes in the ecosystem and the environment.

Drawing showing a section with three graves, discovered in Vaipú, containing ocher.

In 1722 when, on Easter Sunday, Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen discovered the island. He was the first European to discover this enigmatic island. Roggeveen and his crew estimated that there were 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants on the island.

Apparently, explorers reported fewer and fewer inhabitants as the years went on, until eventually, the population dwindled to less than 100 within a few decades. Now, it’s estimated the island’s population was around 12,000 at its peak.

An amazing pigment production

Easter Island is famous throughout the world especially for its gigantic human-like statues, the moai, representations of the ancestors of the Rapanui people. But in addition to statues, the inhabitants of Easter Island also produced a reddish pigment, based on red ocher, which they applied to cave paintings, petroglyphs, moai… as well as in funerary contexts.

Trench excavated by archaeologists at Poike. It contains thin layers of ocher, and palm root molds were found at its base.

While the presence of this pigment was already well known to researchers, its source and possible production process were unclear. In recent years, archaeologists have excavated and conducted scientific studies at four pit locations, suggesting that there was large-scale pigment production on the island.

Drawing showing a section with three graves, discovered in Vaipú, containing ocher. © Photo A. Mieth

The pits located at Easter are rich in very fine particles of iron oxides, hematite and maghemite, minerals that have a bright reddish colour.

Geochemical analyzes that have been carried out on microcarbons and phytoliths (remains of plant mass) indicate that the minerals were heated, possibly to obtain an even brighter colour. Some of the pits were plugged, which would indicate that they were used both for the production and storage of these pigments.

The phytoliths found in the pits of Easter Island come mainly from Panicoideae, plants of the subfamily of grasses. The researchers believe that these phytoliths were used as part of the fuel used to heat the pigments.

The graves investigated on the island date between 1200 and 1650. At Vaipú Este, the site where most of the graves were found, researchers discovered that many of them were located where palm roots had previously been found, as well as in Poike, where another grave was found. This suggests that pigment production took place after the cleaning and burning of the old palm vegetation.

Detail of palm roots in one of the excavated pits.

This indicates that even though the palm tree vegetation had disappeared, the prehistoric population of Easter Island continued pigment production, and on a substantial scale. This fact contrasts with the previous hypothesis that the clearing of vegetation resulted in social collapse. The discovery provides us with new insights into the flexibility of humans to cope with changing environmental conditions.

Conclusion

In the end, the questions remain, how were the Rapanui People extinct from that island? Why did they disappear abruptly? Also, there are a number of questions about their actual origin, it is still unknown on the island where they came from.

Socially and culturally from all aspects, they have shown intelligence and superiority in history, but their sudden extinction without a trace remains a big mystery to this day. Now, our eyes can only see some of the leading sculptures and crafts left by this great society that fascinate and astonish us even today.

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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.

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