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Easter Island Extinction Blamed on Environment

Jan 12, 2015 04:07 PM EST

Scientists may have finally solved the mystery of the extinction of Easter Island society, now blaming it on environmental constraints, according to the latest research.

The Polynesians that inhabited this remote spot of land in the middle of the Pacific are most famous for their impressive head-and-torso, 82-ton stone statues, of which there are about 900 scattered across the island. Archaeological evidence suggests that these inhabitants first landed on Easter Island around 1200 AD, presumably by way of wooden canoes and with favorable winds guiding them. But the culture did not flourish for long, eventually falling into decline by the 16th century.

Previous research believed that the residents of Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, died after they used up all of their natural resources or after the Europeans arrived. But now, a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that this population's downfall is the result of environmental conditions.

"The results of our research were really quite surprising to me. Indeed, in the past, we've published articles about how there was little evidence for pre-European-contact societal collapse," co-author Thegn Ladefoged, from the University of Auckland, said in a statement.

During the study, researchers analyzed more than 400 obsidian artifacts found at six different sites around the island. By dating the tools and rocks, they were able to measure land use, climatic conditions, soil chemistry and population numbers.

The first site, located on the northwest coast, showed an increase in population between 1220 and 1650 and then a rapid decline. This site was also prone to drought. The second site, in the interior on the island, was a popular spot until 1705 when use started to decline, possibly because of low soil fertility due to leaching.

The third site was both rainy and fertile and showed an increase use of soil starting about 1250 and then fairly constant use until 1850.

And because Europeans didn't arrive on Easter Island until 1722, researchers determined from the first two sites that the Rapa Nui people were struggling against the natural limitations of the island, rather than an environmental disaster.

"It is clear that people were reacting to regional environmental variation on the island before they were devastated by the introduction of European diseases and other historic processes," Ladefoged concluded.

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