Journal of Paleolimnology

, Volume 54, Issue 4, pp 279–303 | Cite as

A plant microfossil record of Late Quaternary environments and human activity from Rano Aroi and surroundings, Easter Island

  • M. Horrocks
  • W. T. Baisden
  • M. A. Harper
  • M. Marra
  • J. Flenley
  • D. Feek
  • S. Haoa-Cardinali
  • E. D. Keller
  • L. González Nualart
  • T. Edmunds Gorman
Original paper


To investigate past vegetation change and human activity at the highest elevations on Easter Island, this study examines pollen, phytoliths, diatoms, starch and arthropods preserved in sediment/soil profiles from Rano Aroi crater, and another, newly described wetland in the adjacent, much smaller Rano Aroi Iti depression. A Bayesian age–depth model for Rano Aroi provides adequate certainty for the Late Pleistocene and last ~1000 years, but is poorly constrained from 12,000 to 1000 cal BP. The occurrence of cf. Potamogeton and Lycopodium pollen types at this highland site (~425 m altitude), while absent or rare at lowland sites, could well be related to the cooler higher altitude conditions. Smaller quantities of Arecaceae (palm) pollen than at lowland sites indicate that this relatively high-altitude part of the island was near the altitudinal forest limit in the Late Pleistocene, with extensive Asteraceae-dominated shrubland. Arecaceae forest dominated the Holocene, for which there is evidence for a prolonged dry phase. The subsequent disappearance of charcoal and reappearance of diatoms, particularly Eunotia cf. pectinalis, suggest that the dry phase ended prior to human settlement. Polynesian activity is best constrained by abundant microscopic charcoal fragments beginning in a layer at 710 (2σ: 645–797) cal BP, and suggesting a period of forest clearance and burning, culminating at 339 (2σ: 177–428) cal BP. Thinner soils compared with lowland horticultural sites and 14C dates of macroscopic Sophora charcoal suggest that the site was occupied after 1670 CE. Newly described terraces, and pollen, phytoliths and starch of cf. Broussonetia papyrifera (paper mulberry), cf. Colocasia esculenta (taro) and Musa (banana) sp. identified in this study show the value of a combined microfossil approach and provide evidence for extension of cultivation of these Polynesian-introduced cultigens to this least accessible part of the island. Rano Aroi Iti yielded a Bayesian 14C age–depth chronology to a basal age of 1530–1314 cal BP, giving an unexpectedly old age for presumably introduced New World pollen of Sisyrinchium, which occurs throughout the core.


Late Quaternary Plant microfossils Arthropods Agriculture Rano Aroi Easter Island Bayesian age–depth 



This work was supported by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand. We thank the Corporación Nacional Forestal for site access and Zoro Babel for fieldwork assistance. Andy Tulloch and John Dando kindly loaned magnetic susceptibility equipment.


  1. Azizi G, Flenley JR (2008) The last glacial maximum climatic conditions on Easter Island. Quat Int 184:166–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Baer A, Ladefoged TN, Stevenson CM, Haoa S (2008) The surface rock gardens of prehistoric Rapa Nui. Rapa Nui J 22:102–109Google Scholar
  3. Baisden WT, Prior CA, Chambers D, Canessa S, Phillips A, Bertrand C, Zondervan A, Turnbull JC, Kaiser J, Bruhn F (2013) Rafter radiocarbon sample preparation and data flow: accommodating enhanced throughput and precision. Nucl Instrum Meth B 294:194–198CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Blaauw M, Christen JA (2011) Flexible paleoclimate age–depth models using an autoregressive gamma process. Bayesian Anal 6:457–474CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brown FBH (1935) Flora of southeastern Polynesia. III. Dicotyledons. Bernice P. Bishop Museum. Bulletin 130:1–386Google Scholar
  6. Butler KR, Flenley JR (2010) The Rano Kau 2 pollen diagram: palaeoecology revealed. Rapa Nui J 24:5–10Google Scholar
  7. Cañellas-Boltà N, Rull V, Sáez A, Margalef O, Giralt S, Pueyo JJ, Birks HH, Birks HJB, Pla-Rabes S (2012) Macrofossils in Raraku Lake (Easter Island) integrated with sedimentary and geochemical records: towards a palaeoecological synthesis for the last 34,000 years. Quat Sci Rev 34:113–126CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Cañellas-Boltà N, Rull V, Sáez A, Margalef O, Bao R (2013) Vegetation changes and human settlement of Easter Island during the last millennia: a multiproxy study of the Lake Raraku sediments. Quat Sci Rev 72:36–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cummings LS (1998) A review of recent pollen and phytolith studies from various contexts on Easter Island. In: Stevenson CM, Lee G, Morin FJ (eds) Easter Island in Pacific context. Easter Island Foundation, Los Osos, pp 100–106Google Scholar
  10. Diamond JM (2005) Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. Viking Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  11. Diamond JM (2007) Easter Island revisited. Nature 317:1692–1694Google Scholar
  12. Dumont HJ, Cocquyt C, Fontugne M, Arnold M, Reyss J-L, Bloemendal J, Oldfield F, Steenbergen CLM, Korthals HJ, Zeeb BA (1998) The end of moai quarrying and its effect on Lake Rano Raraku, Easter Island. J Paleolimnol 20:409–422CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Ehrlich PR, Ehrlich AH (2013) Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? Proc R Soc B 280:20122845CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Etienne M, Michea G, Diaz E (1982) Flora, vegetacion y potential pastoral de Isla de Pascua. Boletin Tecnico No. 47. Universidad de Chile, SantiagoGoogle Scholar
  15. Flenley JR, King ASM, Teller JT, Prentice ME, Jackson J, Chew C (1991) Late Quaternary vegetational and climatic history of Easter Island. J Quat Sci 6:85–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gonzàlez C, Dupont LM, Behling H, Wefer G (2008) Neotropical response to rapid climate change during the last glacial: palynological evidence from the Cariaco Basin. Quat Res 69:217–230CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gonzalez-Ferran O, Mazzuoli R, Lahsen A (2004) Geología del complejo volcánico Isla de Pascua, Rapa Nui, Chile: V Región Valparaiso. Carta Geológica- Volcánica Isla de Pascua. Centro de Estudios Volcanologicos, SantiagoGoogle Scholar
  18. Goodwin ID, Browning SA, Anderson AJ (2014) Climate windows for Polynesian voyaging to New Zealand and Easter Island. Proc Natl Acad Sci 111:14716–14721CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Grimm EC (1987) CONISS: a FORTRAN 77 program for stratigraphically constrained cluster analysis by the method of incremental sum of squares. Comput Geosci 13:13–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Grolle R (2002) The Hepaticae of the Easter Island (Chile). The Bryologist 105:126–127CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Heyerdahl T (1961) An introduction to Easter Island. In: Heyerdahl T, Ferdon E (eds) Reports of the Norwegian archaeological expedition to Easter Island and the East Pacific, vol 1. Allen and Unwin, London, pp 21–90Google Scholar
  22. Hobbs WO, Lalonde SV, Vinebrooke RD, Konhauser KO, Weidmann RP, Graham MD, Wolfe AP (2010) Algal-silica cycling and pigment diagenesis in recent lake sediments: mechanisms and paleoecological implications. J Paleolimnol 44:613–628CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hogg AG, Hua Q, Blackwell PG, Niu M, Buck CE, Guilderson TP, Heaton TJ, Palmer JG, Reimer PJ, Reimer RW, Turney CSM, Zimmerman SRH (2013) SHCal13 Southern Hemisphere calibration, 0–50,000 years cal BP. Radiocarbon 55:1889–1903CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Horrocks M (2005) A combined procedure for recovering phytoliths and starch residues from soils, sedimentary deposits and similar materials. J Archaeol Sci 32:1169–1175CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Horrocks M, Wozniak JA (2008) Plant microfossil analysis reveals disturbed forest and a mixed-crop, dryland production system at Te Niu, Easter Island. J Archaeol Sci 35:126–142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Horrocks M, Baisden WT, Flenley J, Feek D, Nualart LG, Haoa-Cardinali S, Gorman TE (2012a) Fossil plant remains at Rano Raraku, Easter Island’s statue quarry: direct evidence of a former elevated lake level and ancient Polynesian horticulture. J Paleolimnol 48:767–783CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Horrocks M, Baisden WT, Nieuwoudt MK, Flenley J, Feek D, Nualart LG, Haoa-Cardinali S, Gorman TE (2012b) Microfossils of Polynesian cultigens in lake sediment cores from Rano Kau, Easter Island. J Paleolimnol 47:185–204CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Horrocks M, Marra M, Baisden WT, Flenley J, Feek D, Nualart LG, Haoa-Cardinali S, Gorman TE (2013) Pollen, phytoliths, arthropods and high-resolution 14C sampling from Rano Kau, Easter Island: evidence for late Quaternary environments, ant (Formicidae) distributions and human activity. J Paleolimnol 50:417–432CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hunt TL, Lipo CP (2006) Late colonization of Easter Island. Science 31:1603–1606CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kahn JG, Horrocks M, Nieuwoudt MK (2014) Agriculture, domestic production, and site function: micro-fossil analyses and late prehistoric landscapes of the Society Islands. Econ Bot 68:246–263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. King ASM (1987) The Late Quaternary Vegetation of Easter Island. Unpubl. MSc Thesis, University of HullGoogle Scholar
  32. Ladefoged TN, Stevenson CM, Haoa S, Mulrooney M, Puleston C, Vitousek PM, Chadwick OA (2010) Soil nutrient analysis of Rapa Nui gardening. Archaeol Oceania 45:80–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Ladefoged TN, Flaws A, Stevenson CM (2013) The distribution of rock gardens on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) as determined from satellite imagery. J Archaeol Sci 40:1203–1212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Louwagie G, Stevenson CM, Langohr R (2006) The impact of moderate to marginal land suitability on prehistoric agricultural production and models of adaptive strategies for Easter Island (Rapa Nui, Chile). J Anthropol Archaeol 25:290–317CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Loy TH, Spriggs M, Wickler S (1992) Direct evidence for human use of plants 28,000 years ago: starch residues on stone artefacts from the northern Solomon Islands. Antiquity 66:898–912Google Scholar
  36. Mann D, Edwards J, Chase J, Beck W, Reanier R, Mass M, Finney B, Loret J (2008) Drought, vegetation change, and human history on Rapa Nui (Isla de Pascua, Easter Island). Quat Res 69:16–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Margalef O, Cañellas-Boltà N, Pla-Rabes S, Giralt S, Pueyo JJ, Joosten H, Rull V, Buchaca T, Hernández A, Valero-Garcés BL, Moreno A, Sáez A (2013) A 70,000 year multiproxy record of climatic and environmental change from Rano Aroi peatland (Easter Island). Glob Plant Change 108:72–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Margalef O, Martínez Cortizas A, Kylander M, Pla-Rabes S, Cañellas-Boltà N, Pueyo JJ, Sáez A, Valero-Garcés BL, Giralt S (2014) Environmental processes in Rano Aroi (Easter Island) peat geochemistry forced by climate variability during the last 70 kyr. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol 414:438–450CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Marra MJ (2013) Pleistocene beetles in New Zealand. In: Elias SA (ed) Encyclopaedia of Quaternary science, 2nd edn. Elsevier, London, pp 244–254CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Mieth A, Bork H-R (2005) History, origin and extent of soil erosion on Easter Island (Rapa Nui). Catena 63:244–260CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Moore PD, Webb JA, Collinson ME (1991) Pollen analysis, 2nd edn. Blackwell Scientific, LondonGoogle Scholar
  42. Mulrooney MA (2013) An island-wide assessment of the chronology of settlement and land use on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) based on radiocarbon data. J Archaeol Sci 40:4377–4399CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Niemann H, Behling H (2008) Late Quaternary vegetation, climate, and fire dynamics inferred from the El Tiro record in the southeastern Ecuadorian Andes. J Quat Sci 23:203–212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Orliac C (2000) The woody vegetation of Easter Island between the early 14th and the mid-17th centuries AD. In: Stevenson CM, Ayres WS (eds) Easter Island archaeology: research on early Rapa Nui culture. Easter Island Foundation, Los Osos, pp 211–220Google Scholar
  45. Orliac C, Orliac M (1998) The disappearance of Easter Island’s forest: over-exploitation or climatic catastrophe. In: Stevenson CM, Lee G, Morin FJ (eds) Easter Island in Pacific context. Easter Island Foundation, Los Osos, pp 129–134Google Scholar
  46. Overland A, Hjelle KL (2009) From forest to open pastures and fields—cultural landscape development in western Norway inferred from two pollen records representing different spatial scales of vegetation. Veg Hist Archaeobot 18:459–476CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Peteet D, Beck W, Ortiz J, O’Connell S, Kurdyla D, Mann D (2003) Rapid vegetational and sediment change from Rano Aroi Crater, Easter Island. In: Loret J, Tanacredi JT (eds) Easter Island: Scientific exploration into the World’s environmental problems in microcosm. Kluwer, New York, pp 81–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Piperno DR (2006) Phytoliths: a comprehensive guide for archaeologists and paleoecologists. Altamira Press, LanhamGoogle Scholar
  49. Rull V, Caňellas-Boltá N, Sáez A, Giralt S, Pla S, Margalef O (2010) Paleoecology of Easter Island: evidence and uncertainties. Earth-Sci Rev 99:50–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Rull V, Caňellas-Boltá N, Sáez A, Margalef O, Bao R, Pla-Rabes S, Valero-Carcés B, Giralt S (2013) Challenging Easter Island’s collapse: the need for interdisciplinary synergies. Front Ecol Evol. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2013.00003 Google Scholar
  51. Seidemann J (1966) Stärke-atlas. Paul Parey, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  52. Skottsberg C (1956) Derivation of the flora and fauna of Juan Fernandez and Easter Islands, vol 1. Almqvist and Wiksells, UppsalaGoogle Scholar
  53. Stevenson CM (1997) Archaeological investigations on Easter Island. Maunga Tari: an upland agricultural complex. The Easter Island Foundation, Bearsville and Cloud Mountain Presses, Los OsosGoogle Scholar
  54. Stevenson CM, Haoa S (1998) Prehistoric gardening systems and agricultural intensification in the La Perouse area of Easter Island. In: Stevenson MC, Lee G, Morin FJ (eds) Easter Island in Pacific context. Easter Island Foundation, Los Osos, pp 205–213Google Scholar
  55. Stevenson CM, Ladefoged TN, Haoa S, Guerra A (2005) Managed agricultural production in the Vaitea Region of Rapa Nui, Chile. In: Stevenson CM, Ramírez Aliaga JM, Morin FJ, Barbacci N (eds) Papers. VI International Conference on Easter Island/VI Congreso internacional sobre Rapa Nui y el Pacifico. Easter Island Foundation, Los Osos, pp 125–136Google Scholar
  56. Stevenson CM, Jackson TL, Mieth A, Bork H-R, Ladefoged TN (2006) Prehistoric and early historic agriculture at Maunga Orito, Easter Island (Rapa Nui), Chile. Antiquity 80:919–936CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Stevenson CM, Puleston CO, Vitousek PM, Chadwick OA, Haoa S, Ladefoged TN (2015) Variation in Rapa Nui (Easter Island) land use indicates production and population peaks prior to European contact. P Natl Acad Sci USA 112:1025–1030CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Stockmarr J (1972) Tablets with spores used in absolute pollen analysis. Pollen Spores 13:615–621Google Scholar
  59. Thornton PE, Running SW, White MA (1997) Generating surfaces of daily meteorological variables over large regions of complex terrain. J Hydrol 190:214–251CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Torrence R, Barton H (eds) (2006) Ancient starch research. Left Coast Press, Walnut CreekGoogle Scholar
  61. van Balgooy MMJ (1971) Plant geography of the Pacific. Blumea Suppl 6:1–222Google Scholar
  62. van Dam H, Mertens A, Sinkeldam J (1994) A coded checklist and ecological indicator values of freshwater diatoms from the Netherlands. Neth J Aquat Ecol 28:117–133CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. van Steenis CGGJ, van Balgooy MMJ (1966) Pacific plant areas, vol. 2. Blumea Suppl 5:1–312Google Scholar
  64. Van’t Veer R, Hooghiemstra H (2000) Montane forest evolution during the last 650,000 years in Colombia: a multivariate approach based on pollen record Funza-I. J Quat Sci 15:329–346CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Van’t Veer R, Islebe G, Hooghiemstra H (2000) Climatic change during the Younger Dryas chron in northern South America: a test of the evidence. Quat Sci Rev 19:1821–1835CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Wilmshurst JM, Eden DE, Froggatt PC (1999) Late Holocene forest disturbance in Gisborne, New Zealand: a comparison of terrestrial and marine pollen records. N Z J Bot 37:523–540CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Wozniak JA (1999) Prehistoric horticultural practices on Easter Island: lithic mulched gardens and field systems. Rapa Nui J 13:95–99Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • M. Horrocks
    • 1
    • 2
  • W. T. Baisden
    • 3
  • M. A. Harper
    • 4
  • M. Marra
    • 5
  • J. Flenley
    • 6
  • D. Feek
    • 6
  • S. Haoa-Cardinali
    • 7
  • E. D. Keller
    • 3
  • L. González Nualart
    • 7
  • T. Edmunds Gorman
    • 7
  1. 1.Microfossil Research LtdAucklandNew Zealand
  2. 2.School of EnvironmentUniversity of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand
  3. 3.National Isotope CentreGNS ScienceLower HuttNew Zealand
  4. 4.School of Geography, Environment and Earth SciencesVictoria University of WellingtonWellingtonNew Zealand
  5. 5.University of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand
  6. 6.Institute of Natural ResourcesMassey UniversityPalmerston NorthNew Zealand
  7. 7.Hanga RoaChile

Personalised recommendations