Rull, V. (2016), Natural and anthropogenic drivers of cultural change on Easter Island: Review and new insights, Quaternary Science Reviews, 150, 31-41, doi:


Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is a remote Pacific island known for its megalithic statues, the moai, built by an ancient culture which disappearance is still debated. Theories claiming for either self-destruction (ecocide) of this ancient culture or an eventual genocide after the European contact have been the most popular. Anthropogenic drivers have been traditionally preferred as causes of this major cultural shift, whereas climatic changes have been dismissed or underrated. However, the latest findings suggest that the topic is more complex than formerly thought and demand a more holistic perspective. This paper reviews the main paleoclimatic, paleoecological, archaeological and historical evidence of the major Rapanui cultural shift leading to the end of the moai-building civilization and uses an integrated approach to analyze its timing and potential causes. The disappearance of the ancient Eastern Island culture that erected the moai was a dramatic cultural shift with significant changes in lifestyle, socio-political organization, religious performance, art and also in the geographical settlement of the cultural core of the Rapanui society. The ancient society, represented by the so called Ancient Cult (or moai cult) was centered on the Rano Raraku crater, to the east of the island, whose soft volcanic rocks (tuff) where suitable for moai carving. This society was replaced by the Birdman-Cult society, based on Rano Kao, to the westernmost end of the island. The assumed date for such shift is uncertain ranging between mid-16th and late-18th centuries. It is suggested that such geographical change, as well as the associated societal transformations, may have been the result of a combination of climatic, ecological and cultural drivers and events. The latest paleoecological reconstructions show that the Rano Raraku catchment was deforested by AD 1450 and the lake inside dried out by AD 1550 owing to an intense climatic drought. This would have caused a landscape deterioration transforming the Raraku catchment into a wasteland devoid of freshwater and unsuitable for human life and the cultural flourishment that characterized the Ancient-Cult society. The drought lasted for about a century and a half and would have forced the Rapanuis to look for alternative freshwater sources. The only feasible option was the freshwater lake inside the then forested Rano Kao crater, where the ceremonial village of Orongo, the center of the Birdman Cult, was funded by AD 1600. The Kao crater is made of hard volcanic rocks (basalts) unsuitable for moai carving by the Neolithic Rapanui culture, unaware of metals, which would have contributed to the end of the moai-building phase. Deforestation and drought would have led to a general demographic decline. The shift from the rigid socio-political organization of the Ancient Cult to the more flexible system characteristic of the Birdman Cult could be viewed as a cultural adaptation to changing environmental conditions. The occurrence of a further, rather catastrophic, genocide caused by slave trading and epidemic diseases, occurred shortly after the European contact (AD 1722), has been documented historically. Therefore, the Rapanui civilization has undergone at least two cultural crises caused by natural and anthropogenic drivers. A complex synergistic scenario like that proposed here can conciliate multidisciplinary lines of evidence formerly used to defend more simplistic and apparently contradictory hypotheses of cultural change.

Reference article

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