A researcher at Rochester Institute of Technology isunraveling a mystery surrounding Easter Island. William Basener,assistant professor of mathematics, has created the first mathematicalformula to accurately model the island’s monumental societal collapse.
Between1200 and 1500 A.D., the small, remote island, 2,000 miles off the coastof Chile, was inhabited by over 10,000 people and had a relativelysophisticated and technologically advanced society. During this time,inhabitants used large boats for fishing and navigation, constructednumerous buildings and built many of the large statues, known as TikiGods, for which the island is now best known. However, by the late 18thcentury, when European explorers first discovered the island, thepopulation had dropped to 2,000 and islanders were living in nearprimitive conditions, with almost all elements of the previous societycompletely wiped out.
“The reasons behind the Easter Islandpopulation crash are complex but do stem from the fact that theinhabitants eventually ran out of finite resources, including food andbuilding materials, causing a massive famine and the collapse of theirsociety,” Basener says. “Unfortunately, none of the currentmathematical models used to study population development predict thissort of growth and quick decay in human communities.”
Populationscientists use differential equation models to mimic the development ofa society and predict how that population will change over time. Sinceincidents like Easter Island do not follow the normal progression ofmost societies, entirely new equations were needed to model theoutcome. Computer simulations using Basener’s formula predict valuesvery close to the actual archeological findings on Easter Island. Histeam’s results were recently published in SIAM Journal of Applied Math.
Basenerwill next use his formula to analyze the collapse of the Mayan andViking populations. He also hopes to modify his work to predictpopulation changes in modern day societies.
“It is my hope thisresearch can be used to create a better understanding of pastsocieties,” Basener adds. “It will also eventually help scientists andgovernments develop better population management skills to avert futurefamines and population collapses.”
Basener’s research was done incollaboration with David Ross, visiting professor of mathematics at theUniversity of Virginia, mathematicians Bernie Brooks, Mike Radin andTamas Wiandt and a group of RIT mathematics students.
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