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Loss of the soils reduced agricultural productivity, but the biggest loss was the trees. Without wood to build homes and boats, the people were forced to live in caves and could no longer venture out into the ocean for fish.25 These changes did not happen overnight it took more than 1,000 years for the expanding population to deplete its resources. Loss of the forest was irreversible: Because it led to loss of soil, new trees could not grow to replace the forests. As resources grew scarcer, wars between the villages became common, as did slavery, and perhaps even cannibalism. Easter Island is small, but its story is a dark one that suggests what can happen when people use up the resources of an isolated area.


We note, however, that some aspects of the above history of Easter Island have recently been challenged. New data suggest that people first arrived about 800 years ago, not 1,500; thus, much less time was available for people to degrade the land.27, 28 Deforestation certainly played a role in the loss of trees, and the rats that arrived with the Polynesians were evidently responsible for eating seeds of the palm trees, preventing regeneration. According to the alternative explanation of the island’s demise, the Polynesian people on the island at the time of European contact in 1722 numbered about 3,000; this may have been close to the maximum reached around the year 1350.


Contact with Europeans introduced new diseases and enslavement, which reduced the population to about 100 by the late 1870s. Easter Island, also called Rapa Nui, was annexed by Chile in 1888. Today, about 3,000 people live on the island. Tourism is the main source of income; about 90% of the is- land is grassland, and thin, rocky soil is common. There have been reforestation projects, and about 5% of the island is now forested, mostly by eucalyptus plantations in the central part of the island. There are also fruit trees in some areas.