Contrary to prevailing academic theory and popular belief, anthropologist Mara Mulrooney argues European diseases triggered the demise of Rapa Nui society.
‘When I go back to the island, more and more people are using [rock gardens] to plant their sweet potatoes, bananas and other crops. It is wonderful to see households using these ancient gardening techniques again,’ Mulrooney says.
The Rapa Nui people and their iconic Moai statues are often held up as environmental parables of our age — in a collective obsession to build ever more and ever larger stone monoliths they stripped their Pacific island home of its trees and consigned their once rich society to catastrophic collapse.
But in an article recently published by the Journal of Archaeological Science, Mara Mulrooney, assistant anthropologist at Bishop Museum in Hawaii, challenges that narrative, championed more than 60 years ago by the likes of the legendary Thor Heyerdahl of Kon-Tiki fame and popularized recently by science writer Jared Diamond in his 2005 book “Collapse.”
From her home in Hawaii, Mulrooney told The Santiago Times about how her research led to a very different conclusion — with European sailors not indigenous land practices leading population decline on Rapa Nui.
Your findings suggest that the Rapa Nui population collapsed after European contact, but Captain Cook’s account from the 1700s notes the indigenous population was in decline.
When you look at the early European accounts the first visitors to the island are the Dutch in 1722. They noted that the people were tall, muscular, well proportioned, that they had a lot fresh food which they traded with the Dutch, that they had plantations, that the moai stood erect and that people were bowing down in some sort of ritual in front of these large statues. So when you look at those accounts, life seemed pretty good at that time. But compare them to those of Captain Cook and he noted that the people were small and miserable, that their plantations were abandoned, that there was little fresh food to be had on the island and that some of the statues were toppled. So this suggests that something changed during that 50 year period between the Dutch contact with the island and Cook’s.
How exactly did European contact impact the Rapa Nui population?
The skeletal evidence shows signs of sexually transmitted diseases, like syphilis, which, although it is not fatal, makes people infertile. The Dutch also noted that the women were very friendly — so we can infer what sorts of interactions were going on. Fifty years later, the situation was very different.
If we compare Rapa Nui to the rest of the Pacific the same thing was happening everywhere. Here in Hawaii the population fell by 50 percent within the first 50 years after European’s landed. I would say, based on the evidence, that was when the population dynamics really changed. Then the really fatal impact for Rapa Nui was in the 1860s when the strong men on the island were taken off [by slavers] to Peru to work in the mines. Only 12 people survived out of the thousands who were taken and the few that did come back brought smallpox with them. In 1877 there were only 111 people left on Rapa Nui. When people talk about Rapa Nui it appears to me, based on the evidence that we have now, that the real collapse was sustained contact with the outside world … .
In terms of depopulation across the Pacific Island, the Pacific Island community experienced a fatal impact with the arrival of Europeans who brought with them diseases to which local communities had not developed immunity.
How did you start your project, what were you looking for?
When I started I didn’t know what I was going to find, I actually expected that I would find further evidence for the collapse theory. What happened instead was that when I was doing the background research to my study I started really looking at the nature of the evidence on which these claims were based and what I started to find again and again was that, rather than looking at the data itself, what archeologists had done was fit data to the established theory. When an archaeologist did a widespread survey of an area and collected charcoal for radiocarbon dating and then, let’s say, three out of four of their dates supported the collapse scenario, they’d just throw out that fourth date and say: “well, my research supports this pre-existing model.”
We found this reviewing all the literature and all of the research that has been done on Easter Island, really beginning with Thor Heyerdahl in the 1950s, who was the first person to really present this story of collapse in the archeological literature. What people tended to do was to place the data into a pre-existing model of cultural collapse. As we did more research we found that there were a lot of holes and there were a lot of instances where the data simply didn’t support that model but, because that was the previous model, people slotted data into it.
How does your work differ?
What my thesis did was to look at one component of this collapse scenario. On the one hand you have deforestation, and we have strong evidence for this happening — this is one line of evidence that was traditionally used to support the collapse scenario.
Another line of evidence was settlement patterns. What previous researchers, including Patricia Vargas from Universidad de Chile, Chris Stevenson — who is a colleague of mine — and others had argued was that, as the chiefly economy had collapsed the intensified agricultural plantations were abandoned inland. As you have population levels falling you no longer need full time agriculture specialists to be planting crops in a very intensive way. So part of the collapse scenario suggested that there was widespread abandonment of these interior plantations that people had built up through time to support specialists in society like the people who were carving the moai.
So, as the popular story went, as the whole system collapsed people started moving from those inland regions back to the coast which had previously been a sacred precinct, where all the large ceremonial Ahu platforms and statues are. So what they suggested was that you have this shift of people moving into this sacred zone and starting to use it for day to day activities, like houses being built next to the Ahu platforms, which previously wouldn’t have been done. My project was to test to see if there was evidence for that widespread settlement shift. So what I did was small scale excavations next to houses in various zones of land use that Chris Stevenson and [fellow archaeologist] Sonia Haoa had identified in their previous study. They had worked in the same region I had worked for a decade, so they collected a lot of data.
How did you come across the new evidence that supports your theory?
I was on the island in 2005 working on a separate project looking at agricultural productivity and soil nutrient dynamics and Chris and I started talking and he said it would be a really good project to develop further. So that’s just what I did, I took their survey data went back out to the field and did widespread GPS survey and then I did targeted investigations at houses at variable distances from the coast in these very distinct land zones. I especially looked at coastal habitations and then habitations in the far inland which in this context is about 1.2 miles from the coast, so not very far. But what you have in that inland zone in this particular area, which is called Hanga Ho’onu, is a very intensified rock garden, a huge plant engine that stretches for kilometres where you have almost 100 percent surface cover of a rock garden. This is a very intensified practice that the Rapa Nui developed — what I did was to date when those houses were occupied in that context of the intensified plantation and my results showed that there was not abandonment of that area, that it continued to be used right up to European contact and following it. So that is one line of evidence, that in this instance that directly refutes the collapse
How did you strengthen your theory?
I was at a conference at 2007 when Patricia Vargas, who has written a lot about settlement patterns on the island raised her hand and said: “OK, that’s all well and good that you don’t have this abandonment in this plantation area but what if that region is unique? What if that was a hot spot for post collapse population?”
So I realized I needed to test this further. What I then did was expand and collect all of the radiocarbon dates that had ever been collected by archeologists on the island — there are 313. My specialty is looking at spatial analysis, so I amassed all the literature into a spatial reference and then looked at the patterns on an island-wide scale and that formed the tender of my thesis which I published last year in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Just as we saw in Hanga Ho’onu across the board — even though there has been a huge sampling bias by archaeologists focusing on those coastal regions — is that the with the inland dates, especially from residential houses and agricultural features, there wasn’t extensive evidence of widespread abandonment across the island of those interior regions.
Why wasn’t this pattern picked up before by archeologists?
Previously, when people have looked at radiocarbon dates in terms of synthesizing dates a lot of attention has been paid on when people arrived. As I am sure you have seen, there has been a lot of debate about when the ancient Polynesian navigators first settled on Rapa Nui. It is a question a lot of researchers have sought to address and that is why we have a lot of [carbon] dating from the coast.
Another big question that scholars have tended to ask is when did people build monumental architecture on the island? When were the Ahu being built rebuilt and used? When were the statues being carved? So, a lot of the research focus has been on those larger structures down on the coast and not as much attention has been paid to the inland regions. There have been some really big settlement pattern analyses that have been undertaken but, in terms of bringing together and synthesizing all of the dates, I think that the main reason that no one has done that before is that nobody was asking the questions that I was asking.
Are you alone in your thinking or is there other research that supports your findings?
My colleagues Chris Stevenson,Thegn Ladefoged, Sonia Haoa, Peter Vitousek and Oliver Chadwick have been looking at the gardens themselves. Their results are really interesting because, in terms of deforestation, that story hinges on our assumption that deforestation is necessarily bad. But in this instance they found that, by comparing the soils within those intensified gardens, the [cultivated] soils were more productive.
Where people purposefully cut down the trees and developed rock gardens to plant their economic plants — things like sweet potato and yams — that actually made the soils more productive and increased the nutrient level of the soil more often than not. So I think their results are really interesting because they directly challenge the notion of deforestation leading to ecological and cultural collapse and it sort of turns that scenario on its head. What we have found is, looking at various lines of evidence and empirically assessing this whole story of collapse, the evidence now is pointing in the other direction.
What is the reaction to your work from the indigenous Rapa Nui who still live on the island?
There are about 500 indigenous people who live on the island and whenever I’m there I give a public presentation at the end of my fieldwork to inform the community about what we are working on and what we are trying to find. After one of my field seasons in 2008 I did a talk and afterwards one of the Rapa Nui girls raised her hand and, with tears in her eyes, said: “I just want to thank you for finally recognizing the achievements of my ancestors rather than presenting this story of collapse that everyone else coming in from outside has decided to do.”
It was such a powerful moment. These findings are changing the way Rapa Nui people are able to look at their past and they are very proud and for good reason. They are survivors, you know, it is a phenomenal community. For us it has been really neat to be able to share positive results that change that story of what happened based on real, solid evidence.
What impact has your research had on Rapa Nui?
A lot of people didn’t realize that rock gardens were cultural features. When I go back to the island, more and more people are using [rock gardens] to plant their sweet potatoes, bananas and other crops. It is wonderful to see households using these ancient gardening techniques again.
Mara Mulrooney thesis, “An Island-Wide Assessment of the Chronology of Settlement and Land Use on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Based on Radiocarbon Data” was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science in December, 2013.
By Celia Scruby
Copyright 2014 – The Santiago TImes
Copyright 2014 – The Santiago TImes