New research into the ancient civilizations of Easter Island shows how a commitment to a strict population structure that frowned on island-wide fraternization may hold the key to thriving in even the most remote locales.
(CN) — Living in near complete isolation, shut off from the knowledge and resources circulating around the globe, has always been an unnerving challenge that countless communities throughout the centuries have attempted to overcome. But it may have been the ancient settlers of Easter Island who truly mastered the art of succeeding in seclusion.
While it may be most commonly known the world over for its unique collection of massive stone statues, Eastern Island — known indigenously as Rapa Nui, which refers to both the island itself and the people that live upon it — is in fact a rather unassuming place. Shaped like an irregular triangle, the island measures at just 15 miles long and a little over 7 miles wide at its widest point.
On top of being on the smaller side, the island is notoriously remote. Situated in the southeastern portion of the Pacific, its closest inhabited neighbor — Pitcairn Island that just around 50 people call home — is more than a thousand miles away.
It was this almost unprecedented isolation, however, that sparked the curiosity of researchers looking to answer a crucial question: how exactly does a small community, armed with limited land and almost no contact with the outside world, thrive in such a geographically lonely place.
In a new study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers reveal that the island of Rapa Nui and its earliest settlers from nearly a thousand years ago proved to be the perfect candidate to explore that very question.
“The cool thing about Easter Island is that it’s a great case study for what happens in absolute isolation,” Carl Lipo, professor of anthropology and environmental studies and associate dean of Harpur College, said. “From our best understanding, once people got to the island, that was it. They weren’t going anywhere else and there wasn’t anyone else coming in.”
To help researchers explore how the earliest 12th century settlers of the island managed their isolated existence, researchers relied on computer modeling methods, as well as surviving archaeological and DNA evidence, to help give them an idea on how the population of Rapa Nui successfully organized itself for so many centuries.
What they found was that despite the island’s smaller stature, the Rapa Nui people made an effort to maintain numerous different clans and subcommunities peppered throughout the island. While these mini communities may have been separated by just several football fields worth of land, they each maintained their own distinctive cultural identities and artistic styles, with data suggesting folks seemed to rarely marry or operate outside their own small clan.
While some may think this kind of physical and cultural separation on such a small island would result in a more fragile community, researchers found that opposite was true.
Researchers theorize that Rapa Nui’s uniquely sequestered population structure helped protect the island from a phenomenon known as random drift. Random drift essentially boils down to the idea that in a given community certain cultural traits and ideas, such as language trends or craftsmanship, will eventually change or lose themselves to time.
While this may not inherently pose a problem to all societies, it can be something of an issue for communities facing extreme isolation who, once they have lost a cultural skillset that may be vital to their survival, have no means of relearning faded knowledge.
“Let’s say my dad died before he was able to teach me some important technology and he’s the only person who knew how to do it,” Robert DiNapoli, anthropologist at Binghamton University, said in a statement. “That can have a negative impact in a small, isolated population, where they never will interact with another group of people who might give them those ideas back again.”
Experts say this is where the inhabitants of Rapa Nui had the edge. While history has recorded multiple instanced of random drift wreaking havoc on an isolated community, Rapa Nui protected itself by keeping so many different groups on the island that they were able to keep up the flow of information and sustain cultural diversity for generations without fail.
The island’s inhabitants had mastered living in isolation so well, in fact, that it ultimately wasn’t even the island itself that brought the success of Rapa Nui to an eventual grinding halt; it was European colonizers. While it once boasted a population of roughly 4,000 people, by the 1800s European settlers bringing diseases and leaving with captured Rapa Nui slaves brought the population down to just a little over 100.
Despite this, researchers still say the story of Rapa Nui should serve as a glowing testament to the will and ingenuity of its people. Countless cultural traditions and even the ancient Rapa Nui language itself still survive to this day due to the people’s fierce commitment to keeping their cultural identity alive even as learned to live on the fringes of the world.
Experts are so blown away by the Rapa Nui people that they believe they may have given modern humans the blueprint needed to survive perhaps the most isolated region in existent — the expanse of outer space.
As human endeavors stretch further into the cosmos and conversations about colonizers on Mars shift even further into reality, these trailblazing explores will need to know how to avoid the pitfalls of intense isolation as they are forced put millions of miles of distance between them and the rest of the human race.
An ancient island civilization from a nearly a thousand years may be able to teach them just that.