An archaeologist from the University of Manchester has produced new research suggesting Western invaders should be blamed for the demise of the ancient people and culture of Rapa Nui or Easter Island, further contradicting the once popular idea that its primitive, warlike Polynesian inhabitants had already themselves provoked societal collapse long before the remote southeastern Pacific island was first visited by European explorers in 1722.
Backing an already substantial body of opinion, Dr Karina Croucher a post-doctoral researcher in the School of Arts Histories and Cultures argues that the Easter Islanders must have had a sophisticated and successful culture until the Westerners arrived and it is time we recognise that. She blames disease, slave raids, violence and the ravages of colonialism wreaked upon the island by Europeans as the true causes of the indigenous Polynesian populations decline.
Dr Crouchers research, which is funded by the British Academy, has comprised a study of the relationships between rock art and the body, and a re-evaluation of the mysterious and iconic anthropomorphic moai statues (such as Hoa Hakananai, on display at the British Museum) on Rapa Nui, which was named Easter Island by its first recorded European visitor, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen.
Easter Islands ancient inhabitants who may have first arrived on the island as early as 300-400 AD have been accused of toppling moai during conflicts, and over-exploiting their natural resources. But Dr Croucher claims that, when examined together, the art which adorns Easter Islands landscape volcanoes and statues, body tattoos and carved wooden figurines shows a different picture of what the islanders were like.
The carved designs including birds, sea creatures, canoes and human figures mimic natural features already visible in the landscape and show their complex relationship to the natural environment, she said. They were a people who saw themselves as connected to the landscape, which they carved and marked as they did their own bodies and the moai statues.
She highlights early accounts from expeditions which describe the inhabitants of Easter Island who may have numbered more than 3,000 in the 18th century as having a trading surplus, which proves that they were successful and self sufficient.
It must have been quite a place to live, she continued, I imagine the sounds of the carvers dominating the soundscape as they worked on the rock.
Archaeological evidence supporting a theory of pre-European internal-collapse is thin on the ground. Rather than a story of self-inflicted deprivation, I agree with the view that substantial blame has to rest with Western contact, said Dr Croucher. Visitors brought disease, pests and slavery, resulting in the tragic demise of the local population and culture.
A series of tragic and devastating events killed or removed almost the entire population of Easter Island in the 1860s.
Peruvian slave raiders struck in December 1862 and returned repeatedly over the course of several months, removing around 1500 men and women around half of the islands population most of whom quickly died from tuberculosis, smallpox or dysentery.
When the survivors were released in 1863 after international protests, they brought these diseases back to Easter Island with them, killing most of the remaining population. Several hundred inhabitants more were driven off the island to work on sugar plantations in Tahiti. By 1877, a population of just 110 people was recorded.
Easter Island is one of the worlds most isolated inhabited islands. It has a population of around 3,500 people, of mixed Polynesian and Chilean descent. Research published last year suggested that the mysteriously rapid deforestation of the island after 1100 may have been caused by an invasion of Polynesian rats.