Easter Island’s native civilisation had not collapsed when Europeans arrived

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There is a common belief that when European colonisers reached Easter Island, the native society was in spiralling decline following the collapse of its native culture. 

But research has now found the local people were building their iconic monuments in the 18th century, contrary to the theory that it ground to a halt in 1600. 

By the time Europeans arrived on the island in 1770, the society was still functioning well.

However, the introduction of the Europeans saw it enter rapid decline as disease, murder, slavery and other conflicts ravaged the nation.  

‘The general thinking has been that the society that Europeans saw when they first showed up was one that had collapsed,’ said Robert DiNapoli, at the University of Oregon’s Department of Anthropology who led the analysis.

‘Our conclusion is that monument-building and investment were still important parts of their lives when these visitors arrived.’ 

Easter Island, whose native name is Rapa Nui, is believed to have been settled in the 13th century by Polynesian seafarers.

They survived and flourished for hundreds of years, despite limited resources.   

The research took radiocarbon data from 11 sites on the island and compared it with contemporary records of European settlers.  

The researchers conclude that when Spanish and Dutch settlers landed on the island in 1770 and 1772 respectively, the statues were still in good condition. 

Limited contemporary records remain but they indicate they society was thriving.

However, when James cook arrives in 1774, he notes an island in turmoil. Throughout his upheaval, the native people stuck to their traditions.  

‘Once Europeans arrive on the island, there are many documented tragic events due to disease, murder, slave raiding and other conflicts,’ said Carl Lipo, an anthropologist at Binghamton University in New York, who co-authored the research.

‘These events are entirely extrinsic to the islanders and have, undoubtedly, devastating effects. 

‘Yet, the Rapa Nui people – following practices that provided them great stability and success over hundreds of years – continue their traditions in the face of tremendous odds.’

Dating of the iconic Easter Island heads revealed the erection of the monuments was a gradual process. 

A central platform was made first, and statues, crematoriums and plazas were added afterwards. 

‘What we found is that once people started to build monuments shortly after arrival to the island, they continued this construction well into the period after Europeans arrived,’ said Mr Lipo. 

‘This would not have been the case had there been some pre-contact ‘collapse’– indeed, we should have seen all construction stop well before 1722. 

‘The lack of such a pattern supports our claims and directly falsifies those who continue to support the ‘collapse’ account. 

The research was published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science.  

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