A new study is wading into the hot debate over exactly why Easter Island's indigenous people declined—and already news sources are interpreting it differently. The international team of researchers come to one clear conclusion: Environmental conditions made life hard for the Rapa Nui people before Europeans ever arrived at Easter Island in 1722, LiveScience reports. According to the study, the Rapa Nui used two of three areas on the island far less in the late 1650s and very early 1700s, possibly because one site was susceptible to droughts and another suffered from poor soil fertility. Researchers pegged those years by analyzing water absorption in obsidian flakes from Rapa Nui tools scattered around the island.
"The results of our research were really quite surprising to me," says co-author Thegn Ladefoged. "Indeed, in the past, we've published articles about how there was little evidence for pre-European-contact societal collapse." That's the old hot point: whether Europeans devastated the Rapa Nui with disease and slavery, or the locals had already ruined the land with over-use and possibly resorted to cannibalism, phys.org reports. Now other sources, like Science News and the Washington Post, are saying, hey, environmental conditions worsened life for the Rapa Nui but didn't ruin their civilization—so Europeans did that. And Ladefoged doesn't disagree, saying that the Rapa Nui reacted "to regional environmental variation ... before they were devastated" by European disease and other changes. (Read about teeth that solve an Easter Island mystery.)