Easter Island 'ecocide' theory challenged

Published in June, a new study published by Dylan Davis, a researcher at Columbia University (United States), sheds new light on the theory of “ecocide” on Easter Island. According to this theory developed by Jared Diamond in the 2000s, the first inhabitants of the island caused their own downfall by destroying the island’s ecosystem. For the geographer, a vast deforestation operation led the first islanders to massively cut down the island’s palm trees to create gardens, harvest firewood and use it to erect the 887 moai statues that populate the island. “Ecocide” would have had catastrophic consequences on the island’s resources and agricultural productivity: deprived of food resources, the inhabitants would have torn each other apart in clan wars leading to the extinction of their civilization.

A new study contradicts the idea of ​​the island’s population decline with new evidence on agricultural practices. The research shows that the part of the island dedicated to agricultural crops could feed a maximum of 3,900 people (compared to previous estimates of 17,000). “Thus, contrary to the ‘ecocide’ narrative, the population present when Europeans arrived was not the last remnants of Easter Island society, but probably the society at its peak, living at sustainable levels on the island.”explains Dylan Davis, postdoctoral researcher at the Climate School of Columbia University (United States) and co-author of the study.

The now-contested “ecocide” narrative is based on the assumptions of Europeans who arrived in the 18th century to colonize the island. The colonists, discovering the gigantic statues the size of a small building, assumed that only a population of tens of thousands could have built such statues.

Despite the scientific evidence in the new study that challenges the “ecocide” narrative, the disappearance of Easter Island’s populations remains a question mark. Sue Hamilton, an expert on the island, noted that the new study had limitations, some of which the authors acknowledged. She said it is not possible to prove the population numbers based on the area under agricultural cultivation. Another prominent theory is that diseases were introduced by Europeans: the islanders, who were not immune to infection, were wiped out.

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