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Bulletin From Easter Island

It's Science Thursday Afternoon! Boodler bc has already provided the link to the breaking Enceladus news, about geysers of water on that Saturnine moon. And then Boodler ScienceTim, dumping cold water all over the story, says it's overhyped:

"I don't like this kind of breathless progress by press release. It's an attempt to sell the public on scientific-progress-by-divine-revelation. I realize that the concern is that you want to get positive feelings from the public on why you spent over a billion government dollars to send a spacecraft to Saturn. This approach, however, seems like a big mistake. Just how many divine revelations can you have and still claim that you don't yet know enough that you need to go sit down and ponder it all for a decade or two? Real scientific progress is not so startling..."

But let's go down to Earth for a second.

Just a couple of days ago, scientists revealed they'd discovered a new crustacean -- a furry blond lobster -- in the Pacific south of Easter Island. And now there's more Easter Island news. A report titled "Late Colonization of Easter Island," by archeoogists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, published today, alters the accepted narrative of the history of the famously remote, statue-strewn island in the South Pacific. The tale of Easter Island has been seen as metaphorical for the entire planet, and is prominent in Jared Diamond's recent book "Collapse." The Easter Islands built a society capable of erecting great monuments, but by the time the Dutch traders sailed up in the early 1700s the island was barren of trees and the inhabitants barely scraping by. Diamond has argued that the islanders caused their own decline by damaging their environment.

The old story had been that Polynesians arrived in their canoes between 400 and 800 A.D., and lived for many centuries in harmony with nature. Then, circa the year 1200 or so, they began to build great stone faces, and simultaneously started a process of environmental degradation, including widespread deforestation.

The new study, based on radiocarbon dating of charcoal, animal remains and remnants of palm trees, says the Polynesians didn't arrive until about 1200, and, in tandem with stowaway Polynesian rats, immediately began deforesting the island, dragging around enormous statues, and generally making a mess of things. So much for the many centuries of ecological harmony implied by the "long chronology." Hunt has discussed much of this previously, but the new study, in the journal Science, nails down the chronology.

The moral of the story, Hunt told me this week, "is that things are not always what they appear, and science brings us surprises. If something as basic as the chronology was wrong, what else don't we know? I think it opens the door for a lot of possibilities."

[Yes, this is the opening that Von Daniken has been waiting for.]

Hunt is anxious to hear Diamond's reaction to the new study. Hunt believes that, contrary to what Diamond has written, the population of Easter Island didn't go into a free-fall until the arrival of European diseases.

"People and rats wrecked the environment. Did that lead to the population collapse? I dont think so. We have nothing to say that population collapsed prior to when Europeans arrived."

Prehistoric human migrations are a tremendous riddle. I can't think of a more interesting scientific topic than How We Got Here. And When. And How.

Time's magazine's cover story on the Earliest Americans delves into the various new theories about how the hemisphere was peopled. The field is highly contentious and there's no real consensus on how and when people first reached this continent. A single migration, or multiple pulses?

From Time:

"The Clovis-first theory is pretty much dead, and the case for coastal migration appears to be getting stronger all the time. But in a field so recently liberated from a dogma that has kept it in an intellectual straitjacket since Franklin Roosevelt was President, all sorts of ideas are suddenly on the table. Could prehistoric Asians, for example, have sailed directly across the Pacific to South America? That may seem far-fetched, but scientists know that people sailing from Southeast Asia reached Australia some 60,000 years ago. And in 1947 the explorer Thor Heyerdahl showed it was possible to travel across the Pacific by raft in the other direction. At least a couple of archaeologists, including Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian, even go so far as to suggest that the earliest Americans came from Europe, not Asia, pointing to similarities between Clovis spear points and blades from France and Spain dating to between 20,500 and 17,000 years B.P."

Some smartypants wrote in National Geographic last year, "Earth doesn't yield a perfect database. Still, it's our scientific impulse to impose parsimonious explanations on complex problems in the same way that Newton realized that the fall of the apple and the motion of the planets were governed by the same simple force called gravity."

By Joel Achenbach  |  March 9, 2006; 3:29 PM ET
 
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