Diet of the prehistoric population of Rapa Nui (Easter Island, Chile) shows environmental adaptation and resilience

Catrine L. Jarman, Thomas Larsen, Terry Hunt, Carl Lipo, Reidar Solsvik, Natalie Wallsgrove, Cassie Ka'apu-Lyons, Hilary G. Close, Brian N. Popp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Objectives: The Rapa Nui “ecocide” narrative questions whether the prehistoric population caused an avoidable ecological disaster through rapid deforestation and over-exploitation of natural resources. The objective of this study was to characterize prehistoric human diets to shed light on human adaptability and land use in an island environment with limited resources. Materials and methods: Materials for this study included human, faunal, and botanical remains from the archaeological sites Anakena and Ahu Tepeu on Rapa Nui, dating from c. 1400 AD to the historic period, and modern reference material. We used bulk carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses and amino acid compound specific isotope analyses (AA-CSIA) of collagen isolated from prehistoric human and faunal bone, to assess the use of marine versus terrestrial resources and to investigate the underlying baseline values. Similar isotope analyses of archaeological and modern botanical and marine samples were used to characterize the local environment. Results: Results of carbon and nitrogen AA-CSIA independently show that around half the protein in diets from the humans measured came from marine sources; markedly higher than previous estimates. We also observed higher δ15N values in human collagen than could be expected from the local environment. Discussion: Our results suggest highly elevated δ15N values could only have come from consumption of crops grown in substantially manipulated soils. These findings strongly suggest that the prehistoric population adapted and exhibited astute environmental awareness in a harsh environment with nutrient poor soils. Our results also have implications for evaluating marine reservoir corrections of radiocarbon dates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)343-361
Number of pages19
JournalAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • amino acids
  • compound specific isotope analysis
  • ecology
  • radiocarbon
  • stable isotopes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Anthropology

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