A new way of looking at the history of the Rapa Nui, the civilization that lived on Easter Island, reveals details about how they lived before Europeans arrived on the island in 1722.
It's long been theorized that the Rapa Nui disappeared because they overfarmed their land, leading to widespread starvation and, it's said, maybe even cannibalism.
But a group of scientists from the United States, Chile and New Zealand, writing in the most recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that ancient obsidian artifacts from the island told a different story.
"This analysis demonstrates that the concept of “collapse” is a misleading characterization of prehistoric human population dynamics," the authors wrote in their summary statement.
The researchers dated 286 obsidian artifacts, including farming tools, from three sites on the island, using a method that measures how quickly obsidian absorbs water.
They found that the Rapa Nui population didn't crash before 1722, but rather shifted around the island as rainfall levels affected farming successes. In fact, previous to the arrival of Europeans, the Rapa Nui curtailed farming at two sites that had been successful before, likely because of periods of drought.
After Europeans arrived, the native population didn't immediately decline. In fact, it expanded in some areas, the researchers said. But it was just a matter of time before foreign diseases like smallpox, and the selling of the Rapa Nui into slavery, spelled the end for the builders of the massive, mysterious statues that grace Easter Island today.