There are several explanations that I'm aware of as to why the Easter Island culture collapsed. While Diamond put forth a hypothesis of deforestation, soil nutrient depletion and cascading environmental effects, I'm going to limit this question to a rival hypothesis: disease and slave trade from European contact.

Suppose a Rapa Nui mystic has a vision about the dangers of foreign peoples arriving on gargantuan and fantastic sea vessels. His divination / interpretation of this vision was:

  • Do not fight these foreigners
  • Prevent contact as much as possible
  • Do not underestimate their technology

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Supposing that this mystic had absolute authority into influencing the Rapa Nui court at the time, could Easter Islanders prevent landfall at their level of technology?

Note: Population of Easter Island at time of contact was said to be ~3,000.

Note II: Would also be nice to have estimated timetables but not a must.


  • $\begingroup$ Retracted. I'm cool with "nice to haves." Unfortunately, timetables are always Too Story-Based even with an expert opinion (because they're based on what resources, opportunities, problems, and divine blessings you choose for your story). $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jul 1, 2022 at 5:52
  • $\begingroup$ Do the invaders know the location of Easter Island or do they chance upon it? Are they an organised force, a single pirating vessel (or small group), a commercial vessel off course? If the islanders repel one wave of invaders, will others come? It makes a difference if it’s a “lucky once” vs “lucky every time” scenario. $\endgroup$
    – Ottie
    Commented Jul 1, 2022 at 8:14
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ The Easter Island culture had collapsed long before the Europeans came. When the rest of the world came visiting, the island had already lost almost all its trees, and soil erosion was well on its way. All the wild land birds had been eaten, and the seabirds were in marked decline. The population had dropped to about 3000 in 1760 (at first contact), from about 15,000 one hundred years earlier. It's rather hard to erect fortifications when you have a stone age technology and almost no wood. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jul 1, 2022 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP That issue also is fascinating to me, was planning to ask a dedicated question on that next week; a mini-theme course correction series for Easter Island. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 1, 2022 at 8:45

6 Answers 6


Frame Challenge: Turn Outward

There's no amount of fortifying and "turning inward" that could protect the population of Easter Island. Determined Age of Sail explorers would have found a way on to the island, and once that happened, the diseases were loose.

So the Rapa Nui must turn outward. They must become explorers themselves.

The nearest continental country to Easter Island is Chile. The Spanish conquest of Chile began in the 1540s, so the Rapa Nui have nearly 200 years to acclimatize themselves to European contact through contact with Chile.

The Rapa Nui could send multiple sacrificial missions to Chile, with the understanding that many (most?) of these explorers will die of disease. The ones that survive and return to the community are the citizens with natural immunity to the various Old World maladies. They should be revered as heroes, and honored within the community.

Over time, the community would build up resistance to European disease, and thus be able to survive "first contact" when it comes in the 1720s.

Other Options

  1. Develop modern immunology to make vaccines hundreds of years early. (seems unlikely)
  2. Violently resist all European contact until modern medicine develops and Europeans can bring their own vaccines. (Also seems unlikely, but there are un-contacted populations today, so it's not without precedent.)
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ How a group becomes explorers without any trees is... left as an exercise for the reader. Perhaps the mystic comes along early enough to tell them not to clear cut the island. $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Commented Jul 1, 2022 at 14:37


The explorers have ships full of cannons. If they can't make landfall due to some sort of coastal fortification, they have enough gunpowder and ammunition to literally blow them away. If the natives hide, the explorers might still find the villages, and even if they run, that won't halt them from putting the island on the maps and doing water stops there in the future.

With each ship come the typical illnesses of the explorers, and even if they run to the hills every time, some of those might come rather desperate for the embrace of someone - and pursue them to the hills. These sailors bring with them illnesses that will spread like wildfire.

Other sailors might have even worse motives, going after the fleeing natives just to take them as slaves or kill a few so they can take back body parts as trophies.

And then there might be an expedition that just mixes up the islands, and believes that Rapa Nui is one of those anthropophage islands, and they disembark with the very plan to kill everyone that is native to the island.

Besides those doom scenarios, the island was already unable to support the population due to a lack of wildlife and soil erosion. Even if the explorers don't bring death to everybody till 1890, the population was steering towards near-extinction around the same time anyway.

In short: Rapa Nui is doomed.


No they couldn't prevent anything.

The Moriori of the Chatham Islands had that scenario. They were told by their leaders not to fight the invading Maori and were genocided in some pretty nasty ways. The women and children were tortured for days.

A population of about 2000 who outnumbered the invaders all died without a fight with only 100 remaining alive as slaves. And they were not allowed to have children.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, good context to have. But question is more on how to direct efforts into preventing ships from arriving in the first place. Just randomly off the top-of-my-head examples: maybe giant barricade or sabotage shallow coastline with something. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 1, 2022 at 6:38
  • $\begingroup$ @ArashHowaida isn't that fighting? Easter Island is an Island, so it's all coast. Sabotage the sea and you'll have to eat rocks instead of fish. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Commented Jul 1, 2022 at 8:30

Not even if they imitated the Japanese.

From Britannica.com:

Japan was the only Asian [island] country to escape colonization from the West (ref).

(note: Some continental asian nations were also never colonized)

This was due to many factors. Tanegashima Tokitaka (ref) bought two guns and had his smiths work on copying the design, Japanese was an unified country that would rather join arms with the blood-feud neighbor Daimyo than work for the foreign powers and so on (ref).

But Easter Island had only abundant volcanic rocks, basalt, trees, and obsidian. As a volcanic island, it had negligible deposits of other minerals.

Explorers and navigators refrained to conquer Japan only because the costs outweighed the benefits.


Quick, Everyone Hide!

Seems like the island supported a population of about 3000 people when the Europeans started showing up, on a landmass of about 60 square miles.

It seems plausible enough to me that the islanders, with some prophetic forewarning, could notice the approaching ships before they themselves were seen, and that they could hide themselves until the newcomers went away.

They might need to stay on alert for ships coming in to take on fresh water or other supplies, but I think they could manage.


Ruin the island

Independence Day may not seem like a masterpiece of deep thought, but one solution suggested there could work: ruin the island to the point where nobody wants it. Chop down all the trees. (Done?) Fight wars to reduce the population to a fraction of what the un-ruined island could support. (Done?) Move agriculture into concealed underground locations in lava tubes (as some tell it, this was actually done, in part because the very scarce fresh water of the island could be contained in those locations). And remove as many signs of human habitation as possible, starting with those accursed statues that bring in the tourists to this day. Bring fire around to every clump of vegetation during every dry season. Make the island look barren and useless.

But above all, ruin the fresh water. The way it actually happened, residents led the Europeans to an inland well. There are no permanent streams or rivers on Rapa Nui. There are three craters that accumulate water, and any number of handcarved basins and inland wells. Some brackish water can be obtained from coastal wells. If your people conceal or destroy all artificial sources, and have guards stationed who are ready to dump salt and filth into the natural craters, they can give the impression of a worthless, waterless island - the sort of island that colonists have ignored to this day, though improvements in small-scale desalination are about to change that. (Of course they should also prepare extensive stored water in clay jugs in their underground caverns) To prevent the explorers from building coastal wells, the residents can put one or two wells at the coast that look like they were dug by short-term visitors to the island, but which are at locations where they happen to tap into salt water only.

Yes, the explorers could scour every inch of land, track down the people living in hiding, "make it work" for them. But they probably won't. They'll keep exploring until they find something they can see more profit in.


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