Vegetation changes and human settlement of Easter Island during the last millennia: A multiproxy study of the Lake Raraku sediments

Núria Cañellas-Boltà, Valentí Rull, Alberto Sáez, Olga Margalef, Roberto Bao, Sergi Pla-Rabes, Maarten Blaauw, Blas Valero-Garcés, Santiago Giralt

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59 Scopus citations


Earlier palynological studies of lake sediments from Easter Island suggest that the island underwent a recent and abrupt replacement of palm-dominated forests by grasslands, interpreted as a deforestation by indigenous people. However, the available evidence is inconclusive due to the existence of extended hiatuses and ambiguous chronological frameworks in most of the sedimentary sequences studied. This has given rise to an ongoing debate about the timing and causes of the assumed ecological degradation and cultural breakdown. Our multiproxy study of a core recovered from Lake Raraku highlights the vegetation dynamics and environmental shifts in the catchment and its surroundings during the late Holocene. The sequence contains shorter hiatuses than in previously recovered cores and provides a more continuous history of environmental changes. The results show a long, gradual and stepped landscape shift from palm-dominated forests to grasslands. This change started c. 450 BC and lasted about two thousand years. The presence of Verbena litoralis, a common weed, which is associated with human activities in the pollen record, the significant correlation between shifts in charcoal influx, and the dominant pollen types suggest human disturbance of the vegetation. Therefore, human settlement on the island occurred c. 450 BC, some 1500 years earlier than is assumed. Climate variability also exerted a major influence on environmental changes. Two sedimentary gaps in the record are interpreted as periods of droughts that could have prevented peat growth and favoured its erosion during the Medieval Climate Anomaly and the Little Ice Age, respectively. At c. AD 1200, the water table rose and the former Raraku mire turned into a shallow lake, suggesting higher precipitation/evaporation rates coeval with a cooler and wetter Pan-Pacific AD 1300 event. Pollen and diatom records show large vegetation changes due to human activities c. AD 1200. Other recent vegetation changes also due to human activities entail the introduction of taxa (e.g. Psidium guajava, Eucalyptus sp.) and the disappearance of indigenous plants such as Sophora toromiro during the two last centuries. Although the evidence is not conclusive, the American origin of V. litoralis re-opens the debate about the possible role of Amerindians in the human colonisation of Easter Island.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)36-48
Number of pages13
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - Jul 5 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by funding from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Education through the projects LAVOLTER (CGL2004-00683/BTE), GEOBILA (CGL2007-60932/BTE) and CONSOLIDER GRACCIE (CSD2007-00067) and through an undergraduate grant (BES-2008-002938 to N. Cañellas-Boltà). We gratefully acknowledge CONAF (Chile) and the Riroroko family for the facilities provided on Easter Island. We also thank Josep Vigo for the identification of Verbena litoralis and Arturo Morales for his assistance in the identification of the small Pseudostaurosira species. Grateful thanks are also due to Raymond Bradley, José Carrión, William Gosling and Peter Kershaw for their critical revision of an earlier version of the manuscript and to Vera Markgraf for her suggestions and revision of the final version.

Copyright 2013 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Deforestation
  • Easter Island
  • Human settlement
  • Late Holocene
  • Paleoecology
  • Verbena litoralis


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