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Rapa Nui, Easter Island, “ecocide, ” rats (Rattus exulans), invasive species, deforestation, rock mulch, agriculture, sustainability.
Rapa Nui (Easter Island) has become widely known as a case study of human-induced environmental catastrophe resulting in cultural collapse. The island's alleged "ecocide" is offered as a cautionary tale of our own environmental recklessness. The actual archaeological and historical record for the island reveals that while biodiversity loss unfolded, the ancient Polynesians persisted and succeeded. Demographic "collapse" came with epidemics of Old World diseases introduced by European visitors. In this paper, we outline the process of prehistoric landscape transformation that took place on Rapa Nui. This process includes the role of humans using fire to remove forest and convert to land for agricultural use as well as the impact of introduced rats (Rattus exulans) as agents that depressed recruitment of native vegetation and contributed to the island's deforestation. For humans, the transformation of the landscape improved productivity. Burning of palms and other trees provided a short-term addition of nutrients to poor soils. Rock mulch and agricultural enclosures solved problems of cultivation and mitigated risk in an uncertain environment. The environmental transformation of Rapa Nui, while a tragedy in terms of biodiversity, was a success for a sustainable Polynesian subsistence economy.
In book: Biodiversity and Societies in the Pacific IslandsChapter: The Human Transformation of Rapa Nui (Easter Island, Pacific Ocean).Publisher: Presses Universitaires de ProvenceEditors: Sebastien Larrue
Hunt, Terry L. and Carl P. Lipo 2013 The Human Transformation of Rapa Nui (Easter Island, Pacific Ocean). In Biodiversity and Societies in the Pacific Islands, edited by Sebastien Larrue pp.167-84, Universitaires de Provence, Paris.
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