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A stable isotope (δ13C and δ15N) perspective on human diet on rapa nui (Easter Island) ca. AD 1400–1900


Correspondence to: Amy Commendador; Idaho State University, 921 S 8th Avenue, Stop 8096, Pocatello, ID 83209, USA. E-mail:


Ecological and environmental evidence suggests that Rapa Nui was among the most marginally habitable islands in Eastern Polynesia, with only a fraction of the biotic diversity found on archipelagos to the west, and capable of sustaining many fewer cultigens traditionally transported by Polynesian colonizers. However, archaeological evidence for human dietary adaptations under such restrictions is limited. Little is known about the particulars of the subsistence base and dietary changes on Rapa Nui that may be associated with a hypothesized late prehistoric decline in the quality and diversity of food sources. To better understand prehistoric Rapa Nui diet we examined stable carbon and nitrogen isotope compositions of human teeth along with archaeological faunal material thought to comprise the Rapa Nui food web. Our results indicate that contrary to previous zooarchaeological studies diet was predominantly terrestrial throughout the entire sequence of occupation, with reliance on rats, chickens and C3 plants. While a few individuals may have had access to higher trophic level marine resources, this is evident only later in time (generally post–AD 1600). A decline in δ15N through time was observed, and may be attributed to declines in available terrestrial proteins; however, presently we cannot rule out the effect of changing soil and plant baseline δ15N. Our results also suggest differential access to higher trophic level marine resources among contemporaneous populations, but more research is required to clarify this observation. Am J Phys Anthropol 152:173–185, 2013. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.