Author ORCID Identifier

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 11-2-2021


archaeology, collapse, Polynesia, resilience, tragedy of the commons

Subject Heading(s)

Rapa Nui Prehistory


The history of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) has long been framed as a parable for how societies can fail catastrophically due to the selfish actions of individuals and a failure to wisely manage common-pool resources. While originating in the interpretations made by 18th-century visitors to the island, 20th-century scholars recast this narrative as a “tragedy of the commons,” assuming that past populations were unsustainable and selfishly overexploited the limited resources on the island. This narrative, however, is now at odds with a range of archaeological, ethnohistoric, and environmental evidence. Here, we argue that while Rapa Nui did experience large-scale deforestation and ecological changes, these must be contextualized given past land-use practices on the island. We provide a synthesis of this evidence, showing that Rapa Nui populations were sustainable and avoided a tragedy of the commons through a variety of community practices. We discuss this evidence in the context of Elinor Ostrom’s “core design principles” for sustainable communities and argue that Rapa Nui provides a model for long-term sustainability.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.



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