The small group of settlers grew rapidly, to perhaps over 10,000 people, who eventually established a complex society that was spread among a number of small villages. They raised crops and chickens, supplementing their diet with fish from the sea. They used the island’s trees to build their homes and to build boats. They also carved massive 8-meter-high statues from volcanic rock and moved them into place at various parts of the island using tree trunks as rollers. When Europeans first reached Easter Island in 1722, the only symbols of the once-robust society were the statues. A study suggested that the island’s population had collapsed in just a few decades to about 2,000 people because they had used up (degraded) the isolated island’s limited resource base.
At first there were abundant resources, and the human population grew fast. To support their growing population, they cleared more and more land for agriculture and cut more trees for fuel, homes, and boats and for moving the statues into place. Some of the food plants they brought to the island didn’t survive, possibly because the voyage was too long or the climate unsuitable for them. In particular, they did not have the breadfruit tree, a nutritious starchy food source, so they relied more heavily on other crops, which required clearing more land for planting.
The island was also relatively dry, so it is likely that fires for clearing land got out of control sometimes and destroyed even more forest than intended. The cards were stacked against the settlers to some extent but they didn’t know this until too late. Other islands of similar size that the Polynesians had settled did not suffer forest depletion and fall into ruin. This isolated island, however, was more sensitive to change. As the forests were cut down, the soils, no longer protected by forest cover, were lost to erosion.