The Domestication History of Chickens: Social Sciences

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– Gameness til the End

The Domestication History of Chickens (Gallus domesticus)

Who Gets the Credit for Taming the Wild Jungle Fowl?

K. Kris Hirst | ThoughtCo | Updated December 11, 2017

Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) in Kaziranga National park in Assam, India.
Getty Images / Hira Punjabi / Lonely Planet Images

The history of chickens (Gallus domesticus) is still a bit of a puzzle. Scholars agree that they were first domesticated from a wild form called red junglefowl (Gallus gallus), a bird that still runs wild in most of southeast Asia, most likely hybridized with the gray junglefowl (G. sonneratii). That occurred probably about 8,000 years ago. Recent research suggests, however, there may have been multiple other domestication events in distinct areas of South and Southeast Asia, southern China, Thailand, Burma, and India.

Since the wild progenitor of chickens is still living, several studies have been able to examine the behaviors of wild and domestic animals. Domesticated chickens are less active, have fewer social interactions with other chickens, are less aggressive to would-be predators, and are less likely to go looking for foreign food sources than their wild counterparts. Domestic chickens have increased adult body weight and simplified plumage; domestic chicken egg production starts earlier, is more frequent, and produces larger eggs.

Chicken Dispersals

The earliest possible domestic chicken remains are from the Cishan site (~5400 BCE) in northern China, but whether they are domesticated is controversial. Firm evidence of domesticated chickens isn’t found in China until 3600 BCE. Domesticated chickens appear at Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley by about 2000 BCE and from there the chicken spread into Europe and Africa.

Chickens arrived in the Middle East starting with Iran at 3900 BCE, followed by Turkey and Syria (2400-2000 BCE) and into Jordan by 1200 BCE.

The earliest firm evidence for chickens in east Africa are illustrations from several sites in New Kingdom Egypt. Chickens were introduced into western Africa multiple times, arriving at Iron Age sites such as Jenne-Jeno in Mali, Kirikongo in Burkina Faso and Daboya in Ghana by the mid-first millennium AD.

Chickens arrived in the southern Levant about 2500 BCE and in Iberia about 2000 BCE.

Chickens were brought to the Polynesian islands from Southeast Asia by Pacific Ocean sailors during the Lapita expansion, about 3,300 years ago. While it was long assumed that chickens had been brought to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors, presumably pre-Columbian chickens have been identified at several sites throughout the Americas, most notably at the site of El Arenal-1 in Chile, ca 1350 AD.

Chicken Origins: China?

Two long-standing debates in chicken history still remain at least partially unresolved. The first is the possible early presence of domesticated chickens in China, prior to dates from southeast Asia; the second is whether or not there are pre-Columbian chickens in the Americas.

Genetic studies in the early 21st century first hinted at multiple origins of domestication. The earliest archaeological evidence to date is from China about 5400 BCE, in geographically widespread sites such as Cishan (Hebei province, ca 5300 BCE), Beixin (Shandong province, ca 5000 BCE), and Xian (Shaanxi province, ca 4300 BCE). In 2014, a few studies were published supporting the identification of early chicken domestication in northern and central China (Xiang et al.). However, their results remain controversial.

A 2016 study (Eda et al., cited below) of 280 bird bones reported as chicken from Neolithic and Bronze age sites in northern and central China found that only a handful could securely be identified as chicken. Peters and colleagues (2016) looked at environmental proxies in addition to other research and concluded that the habitats conducive to jungle fowl were not present early enough. These researchers suggest that chickens were a rare occurrence in northern and Central China, and thus probably an import from southern China or Southeast Asia where evidence of domestication is stronger.

Based on those findings, and despite the fact that southeast Asian progenitor sites have not as yet been identified, a separate Chinese domestication event does not seem likely.

Chickens in America

In 2007, American archaeologist Alice Storey and colleagues identified what appeared to be chicken bones at the site of El-Arenal 1 on Chile’s coast, in a context dated before the 16th century medieval Spanish colonization, 1321–1407 cal C.E. The discovery was evidence of pre-Columbian contact of South America by Polynesian sailors, still a somewhat controversial notion in American archaeology.

However, DNA studies have provided genetic support, in that chicken bones from el-Arenal contain a haplogroup which has been identified at Easter Island, which was founded by Polynesians around 1200 C.E. The founding mitochondrial DNA cluster identified as Polynesian chickens includes A, B, E, and D. Tracing sub=haplogroups, Luzuriaga-Neira and colleagues (cited below) have identified one found only in in eastern Asia and one from Easter Island. The presence of the sub-haplotype E1a(b) in both Easter Island and el-Arenal chickens is a key piece of genetic evidence supporting the pre-Columbian presence of Polynesian chickens on the coast of South America.

Additional evidence suggesting precolumbian contact between South Americans and Polynesians has been identified, in the form of ancient and modern DNA of human skeletons in both locations. Currently, it seems likely that the chickens at el-Arenal were brought by Polynesian sailors.

Sources

Animal Domestication – Table of Dates and Places

How did we ever manage to domesticate so many animals?

K. Kris Hirst } ThoughtCo | Updated December 30, 2017

Chickens, Chang Mai, Thailand. David Wilmot

Animal domestication is what scholars call the millennia-long process that created the mutually beneficial relationship that exists today between animals and humans. Some of the ways people benefit from owning a domesticated animal include keeping cattle in pens for access to milk and meat and for pulling plows; training dogs to be guardians and companions; teaching horses to adapt to the plow or take a farmer to visit relatives living long distances away; and changing the lean, nasty wild boar into a fat, friendly farm animal.

While it may seem that people get all of the benefits out of the relationship, people also share some of the costs. Humans shelter animals, protecting them from harm and feeding them to fatten them up and make sure they reproduce for the next generation. But some of our most unpleasant diseases–tuberculosis, anthrax, and bird flu are just a few–come from the proximity to animal pens, and it is quite clear that our societies were directly molded by our new responsibilities.

How Did That Happen?

Not counting the domestic dog, who has been our partner for at least 15,000 years, the animal domestication process started about 12,000 years ago. Over that time, humans have learned to control animal access to food and other necessities of life by changing the behaviors and natures of their wild ancestors. All of the animals that we share our lives with today, such as dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, camels, geese, horses, and pigs, started out as wild animals but were changed over the hundreds and thousands of years into more sweet-natured and tractable partners in farming.

And it’s not just behavioral changes that were made during the domestication process–our new domesticated partners share a suite of physical changes, changes that were bred it either directly or indirectly during the domestication process. A reduction in size, white coats, ​and floppy ears are all mammalian syndrome characteristics bred into several of our domestic animal partners.

Who Knows Where and When?

Different animals were domesticated in different parts of the world at different times by different cultures and different economies and climates. The following table describes the latest information on when scholars believe different animals were turned from wild beasts to be hunted or avoided, into animals we could live with and rely on. The table summarizes the current understandings of the earliest likely domestication date for each of the animal species and a very rounded figure for when that might have happened. Live links on the table lead to in-depth personal histories of our collaborations with specific animals.

Archaeologist Melinda Zeder has hypothesized three broad pathways in which animal domestication might have occurred.

  • commensal pathway: wild animals were attracted to human settlements by the presence of food refuse (dogs, cats, guinea pigs)
  • prey pathway, or game management: in which actively hunted animals were first managed (cattle, goats, sheep, camelids, reindeer, and swine)
  • directed pathway: a deliberate effort by humans to capture, domesticate and use the animals (horses, donkeys, camels, reindeer).

Thanks to Ronald Hicks at Ball State University for suggestions.

Similar information on the domestication dates and places of plants is found on the Table of Plant Domestication.

Sources

See table listings for details on specific animals.

Zeder MA. 2008. Domestication and early agriculture in the Mediterranean Basin: Origins, diffusion, and impact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105(33):11597-11604.

Domestication Table

Animal Where Domesticated Date
Dog undetermined ~14-30,000 BC?
Sheep Western Asia 8500 BC
Cat Fertile Crescent 8500 BC
Goats Western Asia 8000 BC
Pigs Western Asia 7000 BC
Cattle Eastern Sahara 7000 BC
Chicken Asia 6000 BC
Guinea pig Andes Mountains 5000 BC
Taurine Cattle Western Asia 6000 BC
Zebu Indus Valley 5000 BC
Llama and Alpaca Andes Mountains 4500 BC
Donkey Northeast Africa 4000 BC
Horse Kazakhstan 3600 BC
Silkworm China 3500 BC
Bactrian camel China or Mongolia 3500 BC
Honey Bee Near East or Western Asia 3000 BC
Dromedary camel Saudi Arabia 3000 BC
Banteng Thailand 3000 BC
Yak Tibet 3000 BC
Water buffalo Pakistan 2500 BC
Duck Western Asia 2500 BC
Goose Germany 1500 BC
Mongoose? Egypt 1500 BC
Reindeer Siberia 1000 BC
Stingless bee Mexico 300 BC-200 AD
Turkey Mexico 100 BC-AD 100
Muscovy duck South America AD 100
Scarlet Macaw(?) Central America before AD 1000
Ostrich South Africa AD 1866

Indus Civilization Timeline and Description

Archaeology of the Indus and Sarasvati Rivers of Pakistan and India

K. Kris Hirst | ThoughtCo | Updated January 08, 2018

Harappa, Pakistan of the Indus Valley civilizations: View of brick and rammed earth homes and streets. Atif Gulzar

The Indus civilization (also known as the Harappan Civilization, the Indus-Sarasvati or Hakra Civilization and sometimes the Indus Valley Civilization) is one of the oldest societies we know of, including over 2600 known archaeological sites located along the Indus and Sarasvati rivers in Pakistan and India, an area of some 1.6 million square kilometers. The largest known Harappan site is Ganweriwala, located on the bank of the Sarasvati river.

Timeline of the Indus Civilization

Important sites are listed after each phase.

  • Chalcolithic cultures 4300-3200 BC
  • Early Harappan 3500-2700 BC (Mohenjo-Daro, Mehrgarh, Jodhpura, Padri)
  • Early Harappan/Mature Harappan Transition 2800-2700 BC (Kumal, Nausharo, Kot Diji, Nari)
  • Mature Harappan 2700-1900 BC (Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, Shortgua, Lothal, Nari)
  • Late Harappan 1900-1500 BC (Lothal, Bet Dwarka)

The earliest settlements of the Harappans were in Baluchistan, Pakistan, beginning about 3500 BC. These sites are an independent outgrowth of Chalcolithic cultures in place in south Asia between 3800-3500 BC. Early Harappan sites built mud brick houses, and carried on long-distance trade.

The Mature Harappan sites are located along the Indus and Sarasvati rivers and their tributaries. They lived in planned communities of houses built of mud brick, burnt brick, and chiseled stone. Citadels were built at sites such as Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, Dholavira and Ropar, with carved stone gateways and fortification walls.

Around the citadels were an extensive range of water reservoirs. Trade with Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Persian gulf is in evidence between 2700-1900 BC.

Indus Lifestyles

Mature Harappan society had three classes, including a religious elite, a trading class class and the poor workers. Art of the Harappan includes bronze figures of men, women, animals, birds and toys cast with the lost was method.

Terracotta figurines are rarer, but are known from some sites, as is shell, bone, semiprecious and clay jewelry.

Seals carved from steatite squares contain the earliest forms of writing. Almost 6000 inscriptions have been found to date, although they have yet to be deciphered. Scholars are divided about whether the language is likely a form of Proto-Dravidian, Proto-Brahmi or Sanskrit. Early burials were primarily extended with grave goods; later burials were varied.

Subsistence and Industry

The earliest pottery made in the Harappan region was built beginning about 6000 BC, and included storage jars, perforated cylindrical towers and footed dishes. The copper/bronze industry flourished at sites such as Harappa and Lothal, and copper casting and hammering were used. Shell and bead making industry was very important, particularly at sites such as Chanhu-daro where mass production of beads and seals is in evidence.

The Harappan people grew wheat, barley, rice, ragi, jowar, and cotton, and raised cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats and chickens. Camels, elephants, horses, and asses were used as transport.

Late Harappan

The Harappan civilization ended between about 2000 and 1900 BC, resulting from a combination of environmental factors such as flooding and climatic changes, tectonic activity, and the decline of trade with western societies.

Indus Civilization Research

Archaeologists associated with the Indus Valley Civilizations include R.D. Banerji, John Marshall, N. Dikshit, Daya Ram Sahni, Madho Sarup Vats, Mortimer Wheeler. More recent work has been conducted by B.B. Lal, S.R. Rao, M.K. Dhavalikar, G.L. Possehl, J. F. Jarrige, Jonathon Mark Kenoyer, and Deo Prakash Sharma, among many others at the National Museum in New Delhi.

Important Harappan Sites

Ganweriwala, Rakhigarhi, Dhalewan, Mohenjo-Daro, Dholavira, Harappa, Nausharo, Kot Diji, and Mehrgarh, Padri.

Sources

An excellent source for detailed information of the Indus civilization and with lots of photographs is Harappa.com.

For information on the Indus Script and Sanskrit, see Ancient Writing of India and Asia. Archaeological sites (both on About.com and elsewhere are compiled in Archaeological Sites of the Indus Civilization.

A brief Bibliography of the Indus Civilization has also been compiled.

African Iron Age – 1,000 Years of African Kingdoms

A Thousand Years of African Kingdoms and the Iron that Made Them

K. Kris Hirst | ThoughtCo | Updated June 20, 2017

The Great Enclosure (background) at Great Zimbabwe, the largest prehistoric structure south of the Sahara.
Brian Seed / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The African Iron Age is traditionally considered that period in Africa between the second century AD up to about 1000 AD when iron smelting was practiced. In Africa, unlike the Europe and Asia, the Iron Age is not prefaced by a Bronze or Copper Age, but rather all the metals were brought together. The advantages of iron over stone are obvious–iron is much more efficient at cutting trees or quarrying stone than stone tools.

But iron smelting technology is a smelly, dangerous one. This brief essay covers Iron Age up to the end of the first millennium AD.

Pre-Industrial Iron Ore Technology

To work iron, one must extract the ore from the ground and break it into pieces, then heat the pieces to a temperature of at least 1100 degrees centigrade under controlled conditions.

African Iron Age people built a cylindrical clay furnace and used charcoal and a hand-operated bellows to reach the level of heating for smelting. Once smelted, the metal was separated from its waste products or slag, and then brought to its shape by repeated hammering and heating, called forging.

African Iron Age Lifeways

From the 2nd century AD to about 1000 AD, the Chifumbaze spread iron throughout the largest portion of Africa, eastern and southern Africa. The Chifumbaze were farmers of squash, beans, sorghum and millet, and kept cattle, sheep, goats and chickens.

They built hilltop settlements, at Bosutswe, large villages like Schroda and large monumental sites like Great Zimbabwe. Gold, ivory, and glass bead working and trade was part of many of the societies. Many spoke a form of Bantu; many forms of geometric and schematic rock art are found throughout south and eastern Africa.

African Iron Age Time Line

  • 2nd millennium BC: West Asians invent iron smelting
  • 8th century BC: Phoenicians bring iron to North Africa (Lepcis Magna, Carthage)
  • 8th-7th century BC: First iron smelting in Ethiopia
  • 671 BC: Hyksos invasion of Egypt
  • 7th-6th century BC: First iron smelting in the Sudan (Meroe, Jebel Moya)
  • 5th century BC: First iron smelting in West Africa (Jenne-Jeno, Taruka)
  • 5th century BC: Iron using in eastern and southern Africa (Chifumbaze)
  • 4th century BC: Iron smelting in central Africa (Obobogo, Oveng, Tchissanga)
  • 3rd century BC: First iron smelting in Punic North Africa
  • 30 BC: Roman conquest of Egypt 1st century AD: Jewish revolt against Rome
  • 1st century AD: Establishment of Aksum
  • 1st century AD: Iron smelting in southern and eastern Africa (Buhaya, Urewe)
  • 2nd century AD: Heyday of Roman control of North Africa
  • 2nd century AD: Widespread iron smelting in southern and eastern Africa (Bosutswe, Toutswe, Lydenberg
  • AD 639: Arab invasion of Egypt
  • 9th century AD: Lost wax method bronze casting (Igbo Ukwu)
  • 8th century AD; Kingdom of Ghana, Kumbi Selah, Tegdaoust, Jenne-Jeno

African Iron Age cultures

Akan culture, Chifumbaze, Urewe

African Iron Age issues

Sirikwa Holes, Inagina: Last House of Iron, Nok Art, Toutswe Tradition

Sources

  • David Phillipson. 2005. Iron-using peoples before 1000 AD. African Archaeology, 3rd edition. Cambridge Press: Cambridge.

Introduction to the Lapita Cultural Complex

First Settlers of the Pacific Islands

K. Kris Hirst | ThoughtCo | Updated March 08, 2017

View of Nguna from Paonangisi Beach, Efate, Vanuatu. Phillip Capper

The Lapita culture is the name given to the artifactual remains associated with the people who settled the area east of the Solomon Islands called Remote Oceania between 3400 and 2900 years ago.

The earliest Lapita sites were found in the Bismarck islands, and within 400 years, the Lapita had spread over an area of 3400 kilometers, stretching through the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia, and eastward to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa.

Located on small islands and the coasts of larger islands, and separated from one another by as much as 350 kilometers, the Lapita lived in villages of stilt-legged houses and earth-ovens, made distinctive pottery, fished and exploited marine and aquacultural resources, raised domestic chickens, pigs and dogs, and grew fruit- and nut-bearing trees.

Lapita Cultural Attributes

Lapita pottery consists of mostly plain, red-slipped, coral sand-tempered wares; but a small percentage are ornately decorated , with intricate geometric designs incised or stamped onto the surface with a fine-toothed dentate stamp, perhaps made of turtle or clam shell. One often repeated motif in Lapita pottery is what appears to be stylized eyes and nose of a human or animal face. The pottery is built, not wheel thrown, and low-temperature fired.

Other artifacts found at Lapita sites include shell tools including fishhooks, obsidian and other cherts, stone adzes, personal ornaments such as beads, rings, pendants and carved bone.

Origins of the Lapita

The origins of the Lapita culture before their arrival is widely debated because there do not seem to be clear antecedents to the elaborate pottery of the Bismarcks. One comment made recently by Anita Smith suggests that the use of the concept of the Lapita complex is (ironically enough) too simple to truly do justice to the complex processes of island colonization in the region.

Decades of research have identified obsidian outcrops used by the Lapita in the Admiralty Islands, West New Britain, Fergusson Island in the D’Entrecasteaux Islands, and the Banks Islands in Vanuatu. Obsidian artifacts found in datable contexts on Lapita sites throughout Melanesia have allowed researchers to refine the previously established massive colonization efforts of the Lapita sailors.

Archaeological Sites

Lapita, Talepakemalai in the Bismarck Islands; Nenumbo in the Solomon Islands; Kalumpang (Sulawesi); Bukit Tengorak (Sabah); Uattamdi on Kayoa Island; ECA, ECB aka Etakosarai on Eloaua Island; EHB or Erauwa on Emananus Island; Teouma on Efate Island in Vanuatu; Bogi 1, Tanamu 1, Moriapu 1, Hopo, in Papua New Guinea

Sources

Bedford S, Spriggs M, and Regenvanu R. 1999. The Australian National University-Vanuatu Cultural Centre Archaeology Project, 1994-97: Aims and results. Oceania 70:16-24.

Bentley RA, Buckley HR, Spriggs M, Bedford S, Ottley CJ, Nowell GM, Macpherson CG, and Pearson DG. 2007. Lapita Migrants in The Pacific’s Oldest Cemetery: Isotopic Analysis at Teouma, Vanuatu. American Antiquity 72(4):645-656.

David B, McNiven IJ, Richards T, Connaughton SP, Leavesley M, Barker B, and Rowe C. 2011. Lapita sites in the Central Province of mainland Papua New Guinea. World Archaeology 43(4):576-593.

Dickinson WR, Shutler RJ, Shortland R, Burley DV, and Dye TS. 1996. Sand tempers in indigenous Lapita and Lapitoid Polynesian Plainware and imported protohistoric Fijian pottery of Ha’apai (Tonga) and the question of Lapita tradeware. Archaeology in Oceania 31:87-98.

Kirch PV. 1978. The Lapitoid period in West Polynesia: Excavations and survey in Niuatoputapu, Tonga. Journal of Field Archaeology 5(1):1-13.

Kirch PV. 1987. Lapita and Oceanic cultural origins: Excavations in the Mussau Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, 1985. Journal of Field Archaeology 14(2):163-180.

Pickersgill B. 2004. Crops and cultures in the Pacific: New data and new techniques for the investigation of old questions. Ethnobotany Research and Applications 2:1-8.

Reepmeyer C, Spriggs M, Bedford S, and Ambrose W. 2011. Provenance and Technology of Lithic Artifacts from the Teouma Lapita Site, Vanuatu. Asian Perspectives 49(1):205-225.

Skelly R, David B, Petchey F, and Leavesley M. 2014. Tracking ancient beach-lines inland: 2600-year-old dentate-stamped ceramics at Hopo , Vailala River region, Papua New Guinea. Antiquity 88(340):470-487.

Specht J, Denham T, Goff J, and Terrell J. 2014. Deconstructing the Lapita Cultural Complex in the Bismarck Archipelago. Journal of Archaeological Research 22(2):89-140.

Spriggs M. 2011. Archaeology and the Austronesian expansion: where are we now? Antiquity 85(328):510-528.

Summerhayes GR. 2009. Obsidian network patterns in Melanesia: Sources, characterisation and distribution. . IPPA Bulletin 29:109-123.

Terrell JE, and Schechter EM. 2007. Deciphering the Lapita Code: the Aitape Ceramic Sequence and Late Survival of the ‘Lapita face’. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 17(01):59-85.

Valentin F, Buckley HR, Herrscher E, Kinaston R, Bedford S, Spriggs M, Hawkins S, and Neal K. 2010. Lapita subsistence strategies and food consumption patterns in the community of Teouma (Efate, Vanuatu). Journal of Archaeological Science 37(8):1820-1829.

Beginner’s Guide to the Culture and Ecology of Easter Island

What Has Science Learned about the People Who Settled Easter Island?

K. Kris Hirst | ThoughtCo | Updated March 08, 2017

One and Fifteen Moai, Easter Island. Phil Whitehouse

Easter Island, home of the enormous statues called moai, is a tiny dot of volcanic matter in the South Pacific Ocean. Called by Chileans the Isla de Pascua, Easter Island is known as Rapa Nui (sometimes spelled Rapanui) or Te pito o te henua by its inhabitants, who today are primarily newcomers from Chile and the Polynesian islands.

Rapa Nui is one of the most isolated, continuously inhabited islands in the world, lying some 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) east of its nearest neighbor, Pitcairn Island, and 3,700 km (2,300 mi) west of the nearest mainland and owner, central Chile.

The roughly triangular-shaped island has an area of about 164 square kilometers (about 63 square miles), and it has three main extinct volcanoes, one in each corner of the triangle; the highest volcano reaches a maximum elevation of about ~500 meters (1,640 feet).

There are no permanent streams on Rapa Nui, but two of the volcanic craters hold lakes and the third contains a fen. Pools in extinct lava tubes and brackish water springs are located along the coast. The island is currently 90% covered by grasslands, with a few tree plantations: that was not always the case.

Archaeological Features

The most famous aspect of Easter Island are, of course, the moai: over 1,000 giant statues carved out of volcanic basalt and placed into ceremonial settings around the island.

The moai are not the only archaeological feature on the island that has attracted the interest of scholars.

A handful of Rapanui houses are shaped like canoes. Canoe-shaped houses (called hare paenga) are often found just beyond and overlooking moai groups. According to historic records cited in Hamilton, some of them were 9 m (30 ft) long and 1.6 m (5.2 ft) high, and they were thatch-roofed.

The entrance gaps to these houses were less than 50 cm wide and would have required people to crawl to get inside them.

Many of them had small carved stone statues which acted as household gods. Hamilton suggests hare paenga were conceptually and physically ancestral houses because they were built and rebuilt. They may well have places were leaders of the community met, or where elite individuals lived.

Other original Rapanui features include earthen cooking ovens with stone surrounds (called umu), rock gardens and walled enclosures (manavai); chicken houses (hare moai); quarries, roads built to move moai from the quarries about the island; and petroglyphs.

Easter Island Economy

Genetic research has shown that Rapanui was originally settled by about 40 Polynesians, circum-Pacific navigators likely originating from one of the islands in the Marquesas, perhaps Mangareva. They arrived about 1200 AD and lived undisturbed by contact from the outside world for several centuries. The original Easter Islanders probably relied on the large variety of birds that made the island, covered at the time with a lush palm tree forest, their home.

By AD 1300, horticulture was being practiced on the island, evidenced by the remains of house gardens, horticultural fields, and chicken houses.

Crops were tended or grown in a mixed-crop, dryland production systems, growing sweet potatoes, bottle gourds, sugar cane,​ taro, and bananas. “Lithic mulch” was used to increase soil fertility; rock walls and stone circle planting pits helped protect the crops from wind and rain erosion as the deforestation cycle continued.

  • See Easter Island’s Collapse for the latest concerning the environmental disaster which struck Rapa Nui

Rock gardens (called boulder gardens, veneer surfaces and lithic mulch in the literature) were used beginning in AD 1400, with the most intensive use at the time of the highest population, ca AD 1550-1650 (Ladefoged). These were plots of land which were built of basalt rocks: large ones measuring between 40-80 centimeters (16-32 inches) ​are stacked as windbreaks, others measuring only 5-0 cm (2-4 in) in diameter were deliberately mixed into the soil at depths of 30-50 cm (12-20 in).

Rock gardens are used worldwide, to minimize fluctuations in ground temperature, reduce evaporation, prevent weed growth, protect soil from wind, and facilitate greater rainfall conservation. On Easter Island, the rock gardens enhanced growing conditions for tuber crops like taro, yams and sweet potato.

Recent stable isotope research on human teeth from burials dated throughout the entire habitation of the island (Commendador and colleagues) indicates that terrestrial sources (rats, chickens and plants) were the primary source of food throughout the occupation, with marine sources becoming an important part of diets only after 1600 AD.

Recent Archaeological Research

Ongoing archaeological research about Easter Island concerns the reasons for the environmental degradation and the end of the society about 1500 AD. One study argues that a colonization of the island by the Pacific rat (Rattus exulans) may have exacerbated the end of the palm trees; another says that climatic changes had an effect on the agricultural stability of the economy.

The precise manner in which the moai were transported across the island-dragged horizontally or walked upright-has also been debated. Both methods have been tried experimentally and were successful in erecting moai.

The Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction Project at University College at London’s Institute of Archaeology is working with the residents to investigate and conserve their past.

A three dimensional visual model of an Easter Island statue on display at the British Museum has been created by the Archaeological Computing Research Group at the University of Southampton. The image highlights the detailed carvings on the body of the moai. (Miles et al).

Most interestingly, two studies (Malaspinas et al and Moreno-Mayar et al) describe DNA results from studies of human interments on Rapa Nui and the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil that suggest that there was precolumbian contact between South America and Rapa Nui.

Sources

Barnes SS, Matisoo-Smith E, and Hunt TL. 2006. Ancient DNA of the Pacific rat (Rattus exulans) from Rapa Nui (Easter Island)Journal of Archaeological Science 33:1536-1540.

Cañellas-Boltà N, Rull V, Sáez A, Prebble M, and Margalef O. 2014. First records and potential palaeoecological significance of Dianella (Xanthorrhoeaceae), an extinct representative of the native flora of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 23(3):331-338. doi: 10.1007/s00334-014-0432-8

Cole A, and Flenley J. 2008. Modelling human population change on Easter Island far-from-equilibrium. Quaternary International 184(1):150-165. doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2007.09.019

Commendador AS, Dudgeon JV, Finney BP, Fuller BT, and Esh KS. 2013. A stable isotope (d13C and d15N) perspective on human diet on rapa nui (Easter Island) ca. AD 1400-1900. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 152(2):173-185.

doi: 10.1002/ajpa.22339

Hamilton S. 2013. Rapa Nui (Easter Island)’s Stone Worlds. Archaeology International 16:96-109.

Hamilton S, Seager Thomas M, and Whitehouse R. 2011. Say it with stone: constructing with stones on Easter Island. World Archaeology 43(2):167-190. doi: 10.1080/00438243.2011.586273

Horrocks M, and Wozniak JA. 2008. Plant microfossil analysis reveals disturbed forest and a mixed-crop, dryland production system at Te Niu, Easter Island. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(1):126-142. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2007.02.014

Hunt TL. 2007. Rethinking Easter Island’s ecological catastrophe. Journal of Archaeological Science 34:485-502. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2006.10.003

Hunt TL, and Lipo CP. 2006. Late Colonization of Easter Island. Science 311(5767):1603—1606. doi: 10.1126/science.1121879

Ladefoged TN, Flaws A, and Stevenson CM. 2013. The distribution of rock gardens on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) as determined from satellite imagery. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(2):1203-1212. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.09.006

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