Long before the Europeans arrived on Easter Island in 1722, the native Polynesian culture known as Rapa Nui showed signs of demographic decline. However, the catalyst has long been debated in the scientific community. Was environmental degradation the cause, or could a political revolution or an epidemic of disease be to blame? A new study by a group of international researchers, including Universty of Caifornia (UC) UC Santa Barbara’s Dr. Oliver Chadwick, offers a different explanation and helps to clarify the chronological framework. The investigators expected to find that changes coincided with the arrival of the Europeans, but their work shows instead that the demise of the Rapa Nui culture began prior to that. Their findings are published in the January 27, 2015 issue of PNAS. "In the current Easter Island debate, one side says the Rapa Nui decimated their environment and killed themselves off," said Dr. Chadwick, a professor in UC Santa Barbara's Department of Geography and the Environmental Studies Program. "The other side says it had nothing to do with cultural behavior, that it was the Europeans who brought disease that killed the Rapa Nui. Our results show that there is some of both going on, but the important point is that we show evidence of some communities being abandoned prior to European contact." Dr. Chadwick joined archaeologists Dr. Christopher Stevenson of Virginia Commonwealth University, Dr. Cedric Puleston of UC Davis and Dr. Thegn Ladefoged of the University of Auckland, New Zealand in examining six agriculture sites used by the island's statue-building inhabitants. The research focused mainly on the three sites for which the scientists had information on climate, soil chemistry, and land use trends, as determined by an analysis of obsidian spear points.
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