From at least AD 1000 to 1680, Rapa Nui's population increased significantly. Some estimate the population reached a high of 9,000 by 1550. Moai carving and transport were in full swing from 1400 to 1600, just 122 years before first contact with European visitors to the island. In those 122 years, Rapa Nui underwent radical change. Core sampling from the island has revealed a slice of Rapa Nui history that speaks of deforestation, soil depletion, and erosion. From this devastating ecological scenario it is not hard to imagine the resulting overpopulation, food shortages, and ultimate collapse of Rapa Nui society. Evidence of cannibalism at that time is present on the island, though very scant. Van Tilburg cautiously asserts, "The archaeological evidence for cannibalism is present on a few sites.
Analysis of this evidence is only preliminary in most cases, making it premature to comment on the scope and intensity of the practice as a cultural phenomenon." Most scholars point to the cultural drive to complete the colossal stone projects on Rapa Nui as the key cause of depletion of the island's resources. But it wasn't the only one. Palm forests disappeared, cleared for agriculture as well as for moving moai. Van Tilburg comments, "The price they paid for the way they chose to articulate their spiritual and political ideas was an island world which came to be, in many ways, but a shadow of its former natural self."
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