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Today, we finally found the office where the local researchers are based. Once we found it, it seemed hard to believe it took us a day and half. But, it is a single room at the back of a hotel complex, and has no sign. Upon arriving, we found our contact on the island, Lili, and she brought us up to date on the details of our permissions.

There are many steps involved in getting permission to collect samples here, and we've essentially passed all of them except a native commission. Lili whisked us off immediately to talk with the local head of CONAF, the government agency that administrates national parks and forests. The local head of CONAF spoke little English, so Lili translated. She told us CONAF was very supportive of our work for a number of reasons -- including our interest in understanding the function and dynamics of ecosystems that existed on the island in the past. They hope to begin some restoration projects that will benefit from this understanding.

CONAF was also interested in whether we can help answer an emerging question about the risk that many of the petroglyphs at Orongo, including the one in my first photograph, might soon fall into the ocean. There appears to even be some risk for the entire Orongo site, if I understand correctly. We may be able to look into this by checking the lake sediments we collect for evidence of past landslides that reached the inside of the crater. If we can help answer this question, they believed it would also cement our case with the native commission. We agreed in principle to try to examine this in our work in the Rano Kau crater, and to provide advice on how they might construct further work to evaluate the stability of the Orongo site.

The upshot of all this is that our meeting with the native commission will be next Tuesday, and we can (in the meantime) begin detailed exploratory work to determine where on the landscape we will take samples. But we can't take any samples yet. Ultimately, we hope we've done the right thing by coming to see our permission through, and assuming we can start work. In many western countries, it would be best to have postpone our trip until we had permission. But we surmised that coming to press our case was the best approach for Rapa Nui where both the Chilean authorities and native people are involved in granting permission, and the process is a bit opaque (at least to us). Please wish us luck!

permission pending troy blog

For today's photo, I'm including a photo of moai on the ahu at Anakena. This is the best beach on the island, and the only one with significant dunes. It is where the first canoes landed, and is assumed to be the first settlement. The white coral sand makes a beautiful contrast against the dark volcanic rocks and red soils. Incidentally, the coconut palms in the back were planted relatively recently once a species was found that could flourish this far south -- the typical Polynesian varieties require more tropical temperatures. Soil-derived sediments accumulating in washes behind the dunes may be useful for our research, helping us to understand the first area settled.

Why are we doing this? What's this all about? The Marsden fund has supported our project to investigate the causes of a societal collapse on Easter Island. You can read the summary below, as well as our press release to learn more about the project and its possible relevance to contemporary concerns such as the global financial crisis. Since we wrote the proposal, it has become increasingly apparent that we also have to ask what is a "collapse", and is a "collapse" as bad as it sounds?

Project summary

In his book "Collapse", Jared Diamond highlights the spectacular and mysterious collapse of civilisation on Easter Island. Diamond outlines a number of factors leading to success or failure of civilisations. We have identified that one of these factors - fragile soils - allows us to hypothesise that Easter Islanders would have overshot the carrying capacity of their landscape, reaching maximum population as soil nutrient depletion caused declining crop yields. We propose isotope, biomarker and DNA approaches to reconstruct the biogeochemistry of collapse and thereby test whether the timing of nutrient depletion can answer the question: "Why did they cut down the last tree?"

Within dormant volcanic craters where settlement occurred, we will obtain carefully located cores to precisely resolve the timing of changes in plant, animal and human populations, as well as soil fertility. We will examine plant microfossils (e.g. pollen, starch grains), nitrogen isotopes, the DNA of native and introduced species, and steroid biomarkers derived from humans, animals (faeces) and plants. Plant microfossils from surrounding soils will define the extent of cropping. Collectively, the analyses will enable bio-geochemical modeling to help predict the future of societies around the world where we are stressing carrying capacity of landscapes.

petroglyph troy blog

On arrival on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), we were greeted by some Polynesian-style music and a rapid trip through customs. Unfortunately, two of us were still missing our luggage and there was no clear suggestion when it might arrive. The situation looked a bit bleak because the next flight from Tahiti arrives on Friday, although we were told to check back at the airport tomorrow when a flight from Chile arrives.

Hotel/hostel keepers on Easter Island tend to meet their guests at the airport. Although we had rented a car, this turned out to be very helpful. The car rental agent took a look at the lake-coring gear that had arrived with David Feek and John Flenley from Massey University, and then told us we didn't want the shiny new little Suzuki 4wd he had for us. Luckily we were able to quickly negotiate roughly the same price on a similar vehicle from our hostel keeper, Martin.

The hostel (or residencial in Spanish) is between a traditional hotel and hostel. It consists of adequate rooms with toilets and showers, collected through a lovely courtyard setting. In terms of quality, it is referred to as 'mid-range' in the Lonely Planet, and seems quite appropriate for Kiwis on a budget that includes the effect of a sinking dollar.

While we did little more than get settled on our first day, we had to find time to look around the island a little in the afternoon. We drove up to look down into the Rano Kau crater, which is likely to pose our greatest coring challenge. I'm sure you'll see and hear about Rano Kau again in this blog, so I'll focus now on the Orongo ceremonial village.

In a way, beginning with Orongo means beginning with the ending. The Orongo village and its Birdman cult represent what came after the 'collapse' of Rapa Nui's culture of statue building and ancestor worship. The ceremonial village would be owned for a year by the clan who successfully recovered the first seabird egg of the year from an offshore island, after dangerous swims across waters reported to be infested with sharks. You can see the island (Motu Nui) and a petroglyph of the Birdman in the photo I've posted, and you may want to read more elsewhere. For me, the take home message of the Birdman cult is that there was recovery after collapse, and that the focus on the dramatic feat of recovering the egg provided a very positive alternative to the clan warfare that appears to have emerged immediately following 'collapse'.

Troy Baisden

Was Collapse Inevitable on Easter Island (Rapa Nui)? Reconstructing a Civilisation's Failure is a Marsden Programme Troy Baisden is involved in.

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