Did humans devastate Easter Island on arrival?

Bob Holmes in New Scientist:

Dn88251_600The first humans may have arrived on Easter Island several centuries later than previously supposed, suggests a new study. If so, these Polynesian settlers must have begun destroying the island’s forests almost immediately after their arrival.

Easter Island has often been cited as the classic example of a human-induced ecological catastrophe. The island – one of the most remote places on Earth – was once richly forested, but settlers cut the forests, partly to use the wood in construction of the massive stone statues and temples for which the island is famous. When Dutch sailors arrived in 1722, they found a starving population on a barren island.

Archaeologists had thought that humans first arrived at the island around 800 AD, based on radiocarbon dating of kitchen scraps and cooking fires. Since the first signs of severe deforestation do not appear until the 13th century, this suggests the Easter Islanders lived several centuries without serious impact on their environment.

Not so, says Terry Hunt, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Hunt and Carl Lipo of California State University at Long Beach, US, radiocarbon-dated charcoal from the earliest human traces in a new excavation on the island. The site, Anakena, is Easter Island’s only sandy beach and has long been regarded as the likeliest spot for first colonists to settle. To their surprise, the wood dated no earlier than 1200 AD – several hundred years more recent than they had expected.

More here.