Research Topic

Palaeoecology of Easter Island: natural and anthropogenic drivers of ecological change

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Easter Island is the most remote inhabited place on Earth and its enigmatic ecological and human history has been the object of scientific and popular interest since the 1900s. The intermediate position of the island between the Pacific Polynesian archipelagos and South America has led to varied hypothesis ...

Easter Island is the most remote inhabited place on Earth and its enigmatic ecological and human history has been the object of scientific and popular interest since the 1900s. The intermediate position of the island between the Pacific Polynesian archipelagos and South America has led to varied hypothesis regarding their initial human colonisation and the ensuing ecological impact. The occurrence of climatic shifts and their effects on island’s ecosystems has also been addressed thanks to the presence of palaeoecological archives, i.e. lake sediments and peat accumulations, covering at least the last ~70,000 years. The small size, the isolation and the possibility of climatic and ecological reconstructions before and after human settlement make the island a natural laboratory well suited to disentangle climatic and anthropogenic causes of past ecological change, which is essential for incorporating palaeoecological information into predictive models of ecosystem responses to future climate changes.

Earlier investigations were focused on the giant stone statues, locally called moais, which had been carved on the island’s volcanic rocks by an enigmatic, now extinct, ancient civilization. The interest on the island received a boost several decades ago, after the Kon-Tiki expedition leaded by Thor Heyedahl, who proposed an initial Amerindian colonisation of the island. The first palaeoecological studies suggested the occurrence an ecological catastrophe -featured by an abrupt island-wide deforestation- approximately one millennium ago, followed by a cultural collapse. Such ecological/cultural demise was considered to be the result of over-exploitation of natural resources by the first settlers, likely of Polynesian origin in contrast to Heyerdahl’s view. This “ecocidal” theory became paradigmatic and was taken as a microcosmic model for the whole planet, as a warning against the uncontrolled use of natural resources, a view that attained popular relevance and is still widely accepted. Further archaeological and palaeoecological studies challenged the ecocidal theory. For example, the “genocidal” theory proposed that the ecological demise was not the main cause for the cultural collapse, which was attributed to the arrival of Europeans (AD 1722), who carried unknown illnesses and practiced slave trading.

Until a couple of decades ago, human activities were considered to be the main drivers of ecological change in Easter Island and the potential influence of climatic changes was dismissed. However, further palaeoecological studies suggested that climate changes and climate-human synergies have been more relevant than usually thought. Since the onset of the 21st century, lake and peat coring has proliferated in the island and the main palaeoclimatic trends since the last glaciation, and their potential relationships with landscape and ecological changes, have been investigated more intensively. This has opened a new era in the study of Easter Island’s climatic and ecological history, which has questioned former paradigms.

An update of the new findings obtained seems pertinent to realise which is the state-of-the-art and how future research would be addressed. This is the main purpose of the Research Topic proposed here, which would also be viewed as an opportunity for sharing knowledge among the different disciplines and points of view on Easter Island’s palaeoecology. The Research Topic is open to all researchers and research teams working in palaeoecological issues or in other fields of research with palaeoecological implications, including present-day ecological, cultural and climatic aspects. Suggestions about any other issues fitting with the general aims expressed here are welcome, the aim is to include the widest spectrum possible of empirical and theoretical approaches and views on Easter Island’s palaeoecology.


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