Paschalococos disperta

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Paschalococos is an extinct palm from Easter Island which has given rise to several theories about its origins, uses, and demise, particularly in respect to its relationship with the Easter Islanders, and their incredible statues. One of the popular theories is that the palm trunks were used as rollers for the statues, to move them about the island. Another theory is given directly below, and this is followed by the latest thinking courtesy of Dr John Dransfield. These pieces were taken from several threads about Paschalococos on the [[www.palms.orgcgi-binikonikonboard.cgi" IPS Palm Talk.


There is a theory that the fate of the people of Easter Island is tied up with Paschalococos. The ancient inhabitants used the giant trunks to make their sea going canoes. Fossils showed very large trunks on these palms, when man first got to the island, and food remains from this period were from larger animal species that were from far offshore of the island. As the population increased and the people cut the old growth palms for building and canoes, over several hundreds of years, the palm growth could not keep up and so smaller and smaller palms were available for canoes. The result was smaller canoes that could not travel to traditional distant offshore fishing grounds. This forced fishing of local waters to the point of depletion of food and to the destruction of all food sources and palms on he island through overpopulation.


As I am the guilty party who described the genus Paschalococos, I should perhaps write something to clear up misconceptions. The first indication that a palm once grew on Easter Island came from studies of the totally dead pollen preserved in lake sediments on the island. Among the pollen of many different plants were found large quantities of palm pollen and these pollen grains disappear from the record at a time approximately 500 years ago (Based on radio carbon dating). Then dry empty palm nuts were found in a cave, and these nuts look rather like empty Jubaea nuts. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that the palm survived until 1900. Perhaps many people indeed now assume that the extinct palm of Easter Island, Paschalococos disperta, is not distinct from Jubaea chilensis, but, if that assumption is made, then it is almost certainly based on an uncritical and unscientific interpretation of the evidence. There seems to be a desire for the palm to be Jubaea so that it can feature in theories of how the Easter Island statues were moved about.

The extinct palm of Easter Island is represented by "nuts" - hollow endocarps - and casts of root bosses and pollen. There is absolutely no doubt that the palm is a cocoid palm in that it has a hard endocarp and three eyes. The cocoid palms include the Chilean wine palm, Butia and the coconut, and many others, all possessing hard nuts with characteristic eyes. The Easter Island endocarps are very similar to those of modern Jubaea chilensis, but, nevertheless, subtly different. The differences between the genera in this group of palms are to be found in soft structures such as the endosperm (kernel) and male and female flowers, features that are rarely preserved in the fossil state.

While there is no doubt that the extinct Easter Island palm is most similar to modern Jubaea, there is no evidence that it really is a species of Jubaea, let alone Jubaea chilensis, or even that it had big trunks that could be used as rollers for transporting the famed Easter Island statues. Jubaeopsis caffra and Butia have endocarps very similar to those of Jubaea, yet their trunks are totally different. In coining the name Paschalococos disperta for the extinct palm I was at great pains to highlight the fact that we have no incontrovertible evidence that the palm was Jubaea, because the very features used for diagnosing the genus are at present missing. All we can say with certainty is that a cocoid palm occurred on Easter Island there is no evidence for what it looked like.

There would have been no problem in assigning it to a genus if we lived in the mid 1800s when all these different palms were regarded as species of Cocos. Once genera such as Butia and Jubaea are split off from Cocos, it becomes necessary to look at feature other than just the endocarp to say where a palm belongs. It is in my opinion impossible to assign the Easter Island palm to any known modern genus, because the crucial diagnostic material has not been preserved, and hence the need to describe it under a new name. Had I identified the palm as Jubaea chilensis, then the archaeologists could with justification have said that the trunks may have been used as rollers.

However, to reiterate, there is absolutely no evidence that trunks of the extinct palm were suitable and could have been used in that way. While the idea of planting Jubaea chilensis on Easter Island is a nice one from an aesthetic point of view, it will only entrench the uncritical view that Jubaea once grew there, for which there is as yet no unequivocal evidence.

Some archaeologists have suggested that the Easter Island palm met its end as islanders cut down the trunks for use as rollers to transport statues. I suggest that a much more likely theory for the extinctioon of the palm is that the trunks were felled for the edible palm heart - throughout the tropics, palms are felled for this purpose and in some places, such as Madagascar, this represents one of the most severe threats to the survival of many species. An island community in the process of exhausting its resources would have few compunctions about felling trees to eat the hearts.

(The following is a reply to some speculations about resurecting Paschalococos via DNA from pollen or old nuts.)


A note about DNA in Paschalococos - the pollen remains consist of the almost indestructible sporopollinin pollen cell walls, but no contents where DNA would be, and the nuts consist of hard woody dead cells virtually devoid of cell contents - and hence no DNA either. The best way forward is anatomical studies of the nut cells and comparison with those of Jubaea and related palms. This work is currently being conducted by a student at Missouri Botanical Garden and it may be possible then to ome up with a clearer idea of which extant palms are the closest relatives of Paschalococos.

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