When Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo began research on Rapa Nui in 2001, they expected simply to help fill gaps in a wellunderstood history. But science is a process of discovery, and sometimes evidence leads researchers far from where they anticipated. For Hunt, an anthropologist at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, and Lipo, an archaeologist at California State University, Long Beach, their work led them to conclude that the traditional “ecocide” interpretation didn’t tell the whole story.
First, their radiocarbon dating indicated that people had not colonized the island until about A.D. 1200, suggesting that deforestation occurred rapidly after their arrival. How could so few people have destroyed so much forest so fast? Hunt and Lipo’s answer: rats. When Polynesians settled new islands, they brought crop plants, as well as chickens and other domestic animals.
They also brought rats—intentionally as a food source or unintentionally as stowaways. In either case, rats can multiply quickly, and they soon overran Rapa Nui. Researchers found rat tooth marks on old nut casings, and Hunt and Lipo suggested that rats ate so many palm nuts and shoots that the trees could not regenerate.
With no young trees growing, the palm went extinct once mature trees died.