Busting the Easter Island myth: there was no civilization collapse

For decades, researchers have proposed that climate change and human-caused environmental destruction led to demographic collapse on Easter Island. That's probably false, according to new research.

Easter Island

Golden sunset illuminates a row of moai statues on Easter Island.

helivideo via Adobe Stock
  • Easter Island, whose native name is Rapa Nui, is a remote island in the Pacific Ocean about 2,300 miles west of Chile.
  • Researchers have proposed that deforestation and climatic changes led to societal collapse on the island, prior to European contact.
  • The results of a new study suggest that, despite these factors, the Rapa Nui people managed to adapt and sustain a stable society.

In the popular imagination, the story of Easter Island has long centered on stone. About 900 monolithic statues, or "moai", have been identified on Easter Island, a remote 63-square-mile triangle in the Pacific Ocean whose native name is Rapa Nui. The statues — haunting, hollow-eyed faces — were crafted from massive blocks of volcanic rock by the Rapa Nui people, who settled on the island around 1200 CE.

But for archaeologists and anthropologists, the story of Rapa Nui has often centered on trees, rats, and climate. These are the key factors, some researchers have proposed, that led to ecological catastrophe on the island and, consequently, population collapse.

One popular narrative holds that the growing Rapa Nui population cut down so many of the island's tall palm trees that they depleted their food and logistical resources and inadvertently killed off plant and animal species. Meanwhile, Polynesian rats, which were carried to the island via boat and had multiplied exponentially over generations, contributed to deforestation by eating seeds and plants. Compounding the island's problems were changes in the El Niño Southern Oscillation, which led to drier conditions.

Facing dire circumstances, the natives probably resorted to eating rats. They might have also turned to eating each other, suggested the author Jared Diamond in his book Collapse, in which he states that Rapa Nui is the "clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources."

Busting the Easter Island collapse myth

But the popular narrative about Easter Island could be mostly false. New research suggests that these narratives connecting environmental devastation to population decline aren't accurate. The study, published in Nature Communications, found that while the Rapa Nui people did suffer environmental and climatic changes, they didn't suddenly dwindle in number but rather maintained "stable and sustainable communities on the island" up until the point they encountered Europeans.

To estimate changes in population over time, the researchers tested four demographic models, three of which accounted for variables like climate change or deforestation or both. Their models also incorporated about 200 radiocarbon-dated archaeological samples, which serve as a good "proxy for estimating relative population sizes."

Moai statues Moai statueskovgabor79 via Adobe Stock

Radiocarbon dating and statistical modeling always come with uncertainties. To minimize analytical uncertainty, the researchers used a form of statistical modeling called Approximate Bayesian Computation. The researchers wrote:

"[Approximate Bayesian Computation] is a flexible and powerful modeling approach originally developed in population genetics, but recently applied in archeology, including paleodemographic research. We demonstrate how ABC can be used to directly integrate independent paleoenvironmental variables into demographic models and perform multi-model comparisons."

The results produced by all four models showed that the Rapa Nui population enjoyed steady growth until the first contact with Europeans in 1722, after which the population seemed to either plateau or decline over subsequent decades. These models suggest that, contrary to previous hypotheses about how the overexploitation of resources led to demographic collapse, deforestation and climatic changes on the island were prolonged processes that didn't have catastrophic effects on the population.

For example, evidence suggests that the Rapa Nui people built productive gardens on deforested land and mulched them with nutrient-rich stone. As for climate change, the researchers pointed to recent studies suggesting that the natives adapted to drier conditions by turning to coastal groundwater sources.

Upending a long-standing narrative

Although the study offers evidence of a robust population prior to European contact, the researchers could not determine which of the four demographic models was most correct, nor did they account for other factors that likely affected the island's population, like warfare. The researchers also did not explore what effect, if any, European contact had on the population.

But overall, the study casts serious doubts on the popular narrative that environmental changes drove down the native population. To be sure, there are dark chapters in the history of Rapa Nui, including civil war, slave raids, and statue destruction; reports suggest that between 1722 and 1774 many of the island's statues were toppled or neglected, likely due to internal conflicts among the natives.

Still, the study suggests that the story of early Rapa Nui is less about environmental destruction than it is about resilience.

The researchers conclude that "despite extreme isolation, marginal ecological conditions, and a series of environmental changes, Rapa Nui people found solutions that enabled them to successfully thrive on the island for at least 500 years prior to the arrival of Europeans."

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Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla

Credit: Gerald Schömbs / Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
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