Australian GeoSciences ’11

The story of Easter Island has been used as an example of how people may degrade the environment as they grow in number, until eventually their overuse of the environment results in the collapse of the society. This story has been challenged by recent work. We will present what is known, and you should examine the case history critically. To help with this issue, look back to the list of intellectual standards useful in critical thinking. Easter Island’s history spans approximately 800 to 1,500 years and illustrates the importance of science and the sometimes irreversible consequences of human population growth and the introduction of a damaging exotic species, accompanied by depletion of resources necessary for survival.


Evidence of the island’s history is based on detailed studies by earth scientists and social scientists who investigated the anthropological record left in the soil where people lived and the sediment in ponds where pollen from plants that lived at different times was deposited. The goals of the studies were to estimate the number of people, their diet, and their use of resources. This was linked to studies of changes in vegetation, soils, and land productivity. Easter Island lies about 3,700 km west of South America and 4,000 km from Tahiti, where the people may have come from.


The island is small, about 170 km2 , with a rough triangular shape and an inactive volcano at each corner. The elevation is less than about 500 m (1,500 ft), too low to hold clouds like those in Hawaii that bring rain. As a result, water resources are limited. When Polynesian people first reached it about 800–1,500 years ago, they colonized a green island covered with rich soils and forest.