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Rapa island lies isolated in the South Pacific, halfway between South America and New Zealand. Initially cooperative, its first settlers turned to violence when faced with the same pressures of environment and competition happening right now across the globe, the research suggests.
"Rapa is a very remote place, like another planet. When settlers arrived there, there was an immediate impact on the environment," said study leader Douglas Kennett. "With populations expanding, you can see the same thing on a larger scale today. It leads to social strife."
"Rapa becomes hyper-fortified about 300 years later," Kennett told LiveScience. "The island is 530 kilometers [more than 300 miles] from its closest neighbor; those fortifications weren't for outside invaders."
Environmental degradation and competition for resources led the people of Rapa to split into warring factions, Kennett argues in his research, which appeared in a recent issue of the journal Antiquity.
When the Polynesians arrived in Rapa, "there was massive erosion, clearing of the land…that had an impact," he said. "People also brought things with them, like different crops and rats, as well as their main staple of taro."