Easter Island (Rapa Nui), Chile-- The massive stone sculptures (or moai) that dot this remote Polynesian island have perplexed centuries of explorers. Usually facing the vast, open ocean, the statues offer mute testimony to a nearly vanished civilization. These famous giant heads are not the entire story of Rapa Nui, however. Come probe the past to discover what forces led to disastrous changes here in the 17th century, ending a millennium of peace and prosperity that had been secured through innovative farming techniques.
Easter Island has suffered from heavy soil erosion in recent centuries, making agriculture difficult. Traditionally, inhabitants mitigated this problem with an efficient agricultural system based on rock gardens. In modern times, however, erosion has accelerated as these previously success technologies have been all but forgotten and completely abandoned.
On this expedition, you'll help researchers examine the role of prehistoric rock mulching and rock placement in Rapa Nui gardens and agricultural systems as ways of creating a sustainable agricultural system. You'll also help conduct experiments assessing whether and how this prehistorical technology could be re-introduced on the island today.
The modern Rapanui community has a history of more than a century of expansive agriculture conducted in the western mode, where the first aim is to clear the land of stones. This system has been part of the destruction of many archaeological remains, and has helped increase erosion and depletion soil moisture. In an environment like Easter Island's, rock gardens have been, and may well be again, a much more productive and sustainable agricultural approach than modern plow farming, urbanization, and road- building.
Meet the Scientists
Sonia Haoa Cardinali
Virginia Department of Historic Resources
Ms. Haoa Cardinali, born on Rapa Nui in the 1950s and a graduate of the University of Chile, is the island's coordinator of national monuments, and is intimately familiar with its archaeology and history. She has been a leader in the preservation of Rapanui heritage, including efforts to restore fallen maoi, and has had a long association with Earthwatch and its volunteers. In the 1970s, she was part of the research team that discovered some moai had had colored eyes made from white coral and red scoria, emphasizing their importance in religious ceremonies. Haoa Cardinali has, with her colleague and fellow Earthwatch scientist, Dr. Chris Stevenson (see the project's companion expedition), advanced the theory that the infamous "collapse" of the island's civilization was not the straightforward "ecocide" by deforestation that researchers and the public at large have often thought, and that the introduction of diseases and slave raids by European explorers played at least as great a role in social decline. She's helped demonstrate that her Rapanui ancestors had, in fact, developed a sophisticated agricultural system of rock-gardening, designed to trap moisture and to retain and fertilize poor soils, in part as a response to diminishing resources. Haoa Cardinali speaks English, Spanish and Rapa Nui. She and her family run the Hotel O’tai in the centre of town, one of the first residencias on the island.