UCSB Professor Oliver Chadwick on Rapa Nui’s Natives

Written by

An international team of researchers are exploring a new theory surrounding the mysterious demise of Rapa Nui’s natives, those who built larger than life “moai” statues on the small Polynesian island known as Easter Island. University of California, Santa Barbara geography professor Oliver Chadwick studies Polynesian cultures and co-wrote the recently published study. He sat down with KCRW’s Kathryn Barnes to discuss his findings and how it could relate to our own environmental limits here in Santa Barbara County.

According to Chadwick, the team’s theory weaves together the two extreme stories often told. One, known to many as the Jared Diamond theory, is that the Rapa Nui civilization collapsed due to deforestation and eventual self-annihilation. The story on the other side of the spectrum puts the blame on the European newcomers, who brought along their diseases and wiped out the native population. Chadwick’s theory, however, is that neither of these circumstances led to a complete collapse.

“Our results show that there is some of both going on, but the important point is that we show evidence of some communities being abandoned prior to European contact,” said Chadwick.

Instead, he believes the demise was due to a delicate balance between sufficient rainfall and sufficient nutrient supply. Once environmental limitations caused one or the other to diminish, the civilization could not continue.

“The pullback from the marginal areas suggests that the Rapa Nui couldn’t continue to maintain the food resources necessary to keep the statue builders in business,” said Chadwick. “So we see the story as one of pushing againsts constraints and having to pull back rather than one of violent collapse.”

This rainfall map of Easter Island also shows the three main study areas (pink squares) as well field weather stations (purple dots) and the weather station at Mataveri Airport (red dot). (Credit: UCSB)
This rainfall map of Easter Island also shows the three main study areas (pink squares) as well field weather stations (purple dots) and the weather station at Mataveri Airport (red dot). (Credit: UCSB)