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A message for our future? The Rapa Nui (Easter Island) ecodisaster and Pacific island environments

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The unique archaeological remains of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in conjunction with its geographical position have led to a special interest in this place. What has become the orthodox understanding of the material remains, especially the famous large carved stone torsos (moai), is that they represent a physical manifestation of social competition that was a major causative factor in an ecodisaster - the destruction of the indigenous palm forest. This story of human-caused environmental disaster provided a topical warning, as a microcosm of the earth, in the environmentally aware final two decades of the last century. Recent archaeological and palaeoenvironmental work on other Pacific islands, although indicating significant human-induced environmental change, is providing evidence that these were instigated by thoughtful human actors who were capable of manipulating their island homes in order to enhance, or even make, their potential for subsistence and settlement. Within this scenario the events that led to apparently major environmental change in Rapa Nui is one that is evident in the majority of Pacific islands. In the vast majority of other cases these changes did not lead to the inevitable social competition and population collapse that have been posited for Rapa Nui. In this paper I question whether the Rapa Nui case is really so different and argue that the ecodisaster occurs after and as a consequence of European contact.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2002

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