Easter Island Settled Later, Depleted Quicker Than Thought?

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
March 9, 2006

New archaeological evidence suggests that Easter Island, mysterious home of titanic stone heads, was first settled around A.D. 1200, much later than previously thought.

Once there, the colonizers quickly began erecting the famous statues for which the remote eastern South Pacific island (map) is famous. They also helped deplete the island's natural resources at a much faster rate than previously thought, the study says.

With its barren landscape, the Chilean-controlled island, also known as Isla de Pascua and Rapa Nui, has come to symbolize an isolated civilization that once flourished but suffered ecological catastrophe.

Terry Hunt, the study's lead author, says the new findings highlight the dangers of human-induced environmental change, especially to islands.

"This shows that [such] changes can occur very rapidly," said Hunt, an anthropology professor at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

The study is to be published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.


Scientists have long treated Easter Island's extinct society as a textbook example of a once thriving civilization that doomed itself by wiping out its natural resources.

Before humans arrived on the isolated island, which is 64 square miles (166 square kilometers) in area, had some 16 million giant palm trees. Twenty or more other tree and woody shrub species formed a forest on the island, as on other local islands.

Yet when Dutch colonizers arrived on Easter Island in 1722, they found the eerie stone carvings and little else.

The natural landscape was totally barren, the island's trees having been cut down—an environmental disaster examined in geographer Jared Diamond's latest best seller, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. (See Guns, Germs and Steel: Jared Diamond on Geography as Power.)

In 1947 Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl sailed a tiny raft, called Kon-Tiki, from Peru to Polynesia in an effort to prove that ancient civilizations could have sailed to the South Pacific.

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