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What's this all about?

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.


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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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