How Colonisation Changed Rapa Nui's Landscape Forever

The lasting effects of colonisation on the island

Ahu Nau Nau in Front of a Hill in Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

Rapa Nui, the indigenous name for Easter Island, is the eastern-most island of Polynesian diaspora roughly 3000 miles from the Southern Cook Islands, where the people of Rapa Nui may have begun their journey to the island.

LiDAR Capturing Data of Ahu Nau Nau in Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

It is situated 2200 miles off the coast of Chile, the country which it has been part of since its annexation in 1888.

Cul Abor Poly Easter IslandLIFE Photo Collection

Polynesian people arrived in Rapa Nui around 1200 AD as part of their last wave of migration.  

Wide View of the Crater in Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

Relationships between humans and the environment developed

Rapa Nui has been key in the history of the relationship between humans and the environment, well known as a cautionary tale of how people erode the environment on which they are dependent – committing ‘ecocide’.

A Line of Moai Overlooking the Rapa Nui Landscape (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

However this view is now being challenged: many factors have been exaggerated and oversimplified.

Rapa Nui soil erosionCyArk

Vegetation began to disappear

Research now suggests this may have been  caused by a combination of the new arrivals clearing areas for cultivation and using them for building, and by the Polynesian rat which came with the voyagers as a source of food but which ate the seeds of the palms having a devastating effect on the ability of the palms to replenish. 

Laser scanning in Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

Giant palms, extinct probably from as late as the 1700s, formed a major part of the forest covering the small island when the colonists arrived. The trees quickly became depleted.

Rapa Nui rocky shoreCyArk

The population had to adapt to difficult terrain

The light soils, poor in nutrients, started to erode, compounding challenges faced by water scarcity.

In adapting cultivation techniques to these unproductive conditions for agriculture, the Polynesian islanders showed great ingenuity and adaptability: they developed techniques of using rocks to ‘mulch’ and stone walling to protect plants. 

Looking out at the Crematorio in Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

The stones strewn across the landscape of Rapa Nui contributed to sustaining the natural environment as they still do today. They served to keep the soil cool and maintain moisture, to protect plants from wind and salt, and importantly enriched the soil with minerals from the broken rocks. 

Moai on the Coast of Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

Large scale agriculture was established

They also built manavai, small enclosures of rock walling which protected plants such as taro, banana and sugar cane from the drying effects of the wind. Thousands of manavai still survive on Rapa Nui and together with the rock gardens are evidence of large scale agriculture where yams, sweet potato, taro and sugarcane were grown. 

Easter Island by Carl MydansLIFE Photo Collection

Archaeological evidence shows their diet also included the chickens and rats that they brought with them, as well as fish, birds, turtles and cetaceans. 

Representation of moving the MoaiCyArk

Estimates of population in prehistoric times vary from about 3,000 to 20,000 – those erring on the upper end proposing a population boom which resulted in exhaustion of resources, which is not what the archaeological evidence shows. 

Sustainable communities were formed

What is not disputed is the mastery and labour that went into the creation of the moai, the ahu, houses, and labour-intensive cultivation – a vibrant and sustainable community. 

Easter Island by Carl MydansLIFE Photo Collection


In 1722, the first known European ship to visit Rapa Nui recorded a settled sustaining population of about 3,000 people. Within a short period of time from first contact with Europeans, the moai had all been toppled over. 

Panoramic View of the Crematorio in Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

By 1838, no moai were left standing: beliefs and values changed, and the moai lost their mana.   

Rapa Nui VRCyArk

The population began to decrease

The population decreased significantly as people were impacted by a number of factors including introduced diseases and slavery. By 1877, there were 110 people left on the island. 

Easter Island by Carl MydansLIFE Photo Collection

The island was turned into a sheep ranch

At the end of the 19th century, Europeans forced the Rapa Nui from their land into the town of Hanga Roa turning the island into a sheep ranch.

Easter Island (1965) by Carl MydansLIFE Photo Collection

Society began to decline

The ‘collapse’ of society in Rapa Nui was not self-made. It was triggered by outside contact, and has been described by researchers Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo as “near genocide, not self-inflicted ‘ecocide’”. 

Rapa Nui horsesCyArk

The island became devoid of plants

Thousands of sheep and cattle grazing the land over the following 60 years caused the island to become devoid of native plants and animals, and caused substantial erosion. 

Aerial Photograph of the Coast of Hanga Tetenga (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

What does this mean for today?

Today, the island’s soils are continuing to erode, and a recent study shows that 67% of the island suffers erosion. The National Park contains almost all the areas designated with severe and moderately severe erosion.

Combined with sea level rise eroding the shores, many of the archaeological resources are under threat.   

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Credits: Story

Professor Jane Downes, ICOMOS Working Group on Cultural Heritage and Climate Change, and Archaeology Institute Director, University of the Highlands and Islands UK.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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