How Did the Construction of Easter Island’s Moai Figures Lead to the Downfall of The Native Population?

Scientists now think more people lived on Easter Island than originally thought — making the island’s population collapse that much greater.

Easter Island is famous for its iconic stone heads. These statues, known as Moai, are a mystery of human ingenuity. Standing an average of 13 feet high and weighing 14 tons each, nearly 1,000 statues are positioned around the island, which is governed by Chile. Archeologists have long debated what the statues mean and how on earth a relatively small population could manage this engineering feat in the years following the arrival of the Polynesian people in 800 A.D.

“It is amazing that an island society made of 10 to 12 chiefdoms had sufficient unity and ability to communicate carving standards, organize carving methods and achieve political rights of way … to transport statues to every part of the island,” said archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, founder of UCLA’s Easter Island Statue Project. 

In the 18th century, when Europeans first visited Easter Island, called Rapa Nui by its residents, they recorded a population of just 1,500 to 3,000 residents. Now, a detailed study of the island suggests that the population was actually much higher at one point.

“It appears the island could have supported 17,500 people at its peak, which represents the upper end of the range of previous estimates,” said Cedric Puleston, based at the department of anthropology at the University of California and lead author of a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Scientists studied detailed maps, took soil samples, built weather stations, modeled population, and estimated sweet potato production based on conditions. Sweet potatoes are a key part of the island diet. Researchers estimate that about 19 percent of the island could have been cultivated for sweet potatoes, producing more food than previously thought — and more people to build the Moai.

“If we compare our agriculture estimates with other Polynesian Islands, a population of 17,500 people on this size of island is entirely reasonable,” said Puleston.

Exactly what lead to the decimation of the Easter Island people remains a mystery. Some scientists believe that the population was decimated through an inter-island war. Others blame genocide by outsiders. In the 1800s, slave traders stopped at the island and kidnapped hundreds of residents to sell into slavery. This outside interaction also brought smallpox to the island, which further decimated the population.

“Despite its almost complete isolation, the inhabitants of Easter Island created a complicated social structure and these amazing works of art before a dramatic change occurred,” said Puleston.

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