Paschalococos disperta The Extinct Palm from Easter Island

Moai Statues on Easter Island

Moai Statues on Easter Island

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is one of the world’s most isolated inhabited islands. It is 3,600 km (2,237 mi) west of continental Chile and 2,075 km (1,290 mi) east of Pitcairn in the South Pacific Ocean, and is a volcanic island, consisting mainly of three extinct volcanoes. Easter Island is famous for its monumental statues, called moai, created by the Rapanui people. The Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen named the island Easter Island when he encountered it on Easter Sunday 1722. At that time he visited for a week and estimated there were 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants on the island, and noted a seashore lined with stone statues. When British explorer James Cook visited Easter Island in 1774, he reported a reduced population, and the statues as being neglected with some having fallen down. Easter Island was approached many times during the 19th century, but by now the islanders had become openly hostile towards any attempt to land, and very little new information was reported before the 1860s. A series of devastating events killed or removed almost the entire population of Easter Island in the 1860s. In 1877 there were just 111 people living on Easter Island, and only 36 of them had any offspring.

Paleobotanical studies of fossil pollen and tree moulds left by lava flows indicate that the island was formerly forested, with a range of trees, shrubs, ferns, and grasses. The original subtropical moist broadleaf forests are now gone. A large palm, Paschalococos disperta, related to the Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis), was one of the dominant trees. This palm is now extinct. Introduced trees are now sparse on Easter Island, rarely forming small groves. The island once had a forest of palms, and it has been argued that native Easter Islanders deforested the island in the process of erecting their statues. The disappearance of the island’s trees seems to coincide with a decline of its civilisation around the 17th and 18th century. Only a quarter of the statues were installed, while nearly half still remain in the quarry at Rano Raraku and the rest elsewhere on the island, probably on their way to final locations. Legend says that the statues walked to their final resting places around the island, but probability states that it would have taken 50 men and heavy rollers to move the statues, the largest of which weighing 82 tons. These rollers would have had to be very large and points to them being of the size of Jubaea chilensis sized trunks 4-6 ft in diameter.

Easter Island palm tree glyphs

Easter Island palm tree glyphs

Paschalococos disperta was almost certainly indistinct from Jubaea chilensis. All evidence; heavy trunks 80 ft tall, pollen from lake beds, hollow endocarps (nuts) found in a cave, and casts of root bosses all being identical to those of Jubaea chilensis. We even have glyphs carved into wooden tablets which distinctly depict the unique Jubaea chilensis palm tree shape.

If we take a look at the life-cycle of Jubaea chilensis then the reason for the human demise becomes much more apparent. Jubaea chilensis produces a massive, columnar, smooth trunk. The trunk has a wide girth (4-6 ft) for approximately 50 years of its growth. During this first 50 years the tree is not yet of reproductive age and does not produce fruits. After 50 years of growth the trunk then narrows down to less than half of its previous girth forming the typical wine bottle shape. It is only then that the tree starts to reproduce. Therefore, if you assume that the people cut down the larger trees first then they have systematically stopped all reproduction of the species until younger trees reach fruiting age. The people would have lost an important food source in the nutritious nuts, and there would be no new seedlings. We then assume that the people in their demand for rollers and dugout canoes would have cut down the next largest of the palm trees. Therefore, delaying reproduction of the trees yet further. If they were only left with young trees then waiting 50 years for reproduction would have been unrealistic and any trees that were left would have been cut for rollers without hesitation. Assuming they looked upon the moai statues to bring them prosperity then as hardship for the islanders worsened they would have increased production of statues, using up more and more rollers until they were all gone. And with no more wood to build boats for fishing the people died out.

The overall picture for Easter Island is the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific, and among the most extreme in the world: the whole forest gone, and all of its tree species extinct.

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