Easter Island's Secret May Be Adaptation, Not Suicide The Polynesian society of Easter Island supposedly collapsed in the late 1600s after the population razed the island of every last tree. Recent evidence suggests a different story, one that hints not at environmental suicide but at successful adaptation. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with anthropologist Mara Mulrooney about her research.
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Easter Island's Secret May Be Adaptation, Not Suicide

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Easter Island's Secret May Be Adaptation, Not Suicide

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is known for its mysterious, giant stone statues. It's commonly thought that the Polynesian island society collapsed abruptly in the late 1600s, after the population cut down all of its trees. But lately, anthropologists have been finding evidence of a different story, one that hints not at environmental suicide but instead at successful adaptation. Mara Mulrooney just wrapped up six years of research on the island. And she published her research in the December issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science. Mara joins us now. Welcome to the program.

DR. MARA MULROONEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, I summarized it but can you fill in the story? What is the accepted explanation for the demise of Easter Island?

MULROONEY: Well, I mean, the popular story, as you just noted, is that the Rapa Nui people, quote, "self-destructed." So, scholars, like Jared Diamond, tell this story of resource depletion, coupled with overpopulation leading to societal collapse. And what we found, as we have started to look at the evidence on which that story is based, is that there are a lot of holes.

MARTIN: So, what is the truth? What did you start to uncover as to the real explanation for why this society disappeared?

MULROONEY: Well, the society didn't disappear. And that's something that surprises a lot of people about Rapa Nui. So, what we did was to sample soils across the island and to actually look at the nutrient levels within the soils. And what that research has shown is that by deforesting the island, by cutting down the trees and intensifying the agricultural system, the Rapa Nui people actually enhanced the nutrient levels in their soils. So, they made the environment more productive from a food point of view.

MARTIN: What were you most surprised by? I mean, you worked on this for six years. What really struck you when you started digging into this research?

MULROONEY: That a lot of the evidence that had been collected on the island had been slotted into preexisting cultural chronologies or models that dated all the way back to 1955. So, what was really shocking to me is that archaeologists, instead of looking at the evidence itself, they were actually taking the evidence and putting it into this existing framework that was very outdated.

MARTIN: Why? Why were people so wed to that narrative, to that framework?

MULROONEY: That's a really good question. I mean, if you think about it, it's a great story, and it's a story that people can relate to today. So, it speaks to the real dangers, I guess, of what we're doing in destroying our environment. That's what people really grasp onto.

MARTIN: So, I guess, finally, what have you learned about how scientific or anthropological theories take root?

MULROONEY: Well, I mean, that's the beauty of archaeology, is that it's always changing. What I've learned is that people do hold, hold tight to their theories, and perhaps the story may change. Perhaps the pendulum may swing back towards supporting a collapse. But as of now, you know, I kind of like to think that, as scientists, we trust what the data tell us. And that's the beauty of it, is it's always changing. The story can always change.

MARTIN: Mara Mulrooney. She's an anthropologist at the Bishop Museum. She joined us from the studios of Hawaii Public Radio in Honolulu. Mara, thanks so much for talking with us.

MULROONEY: Thank you.

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