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Yet when the island’s penal colony was established in 1788, puzzled residents discovered stone tools on the beaches and cultivated bananas in the forest.
Without trade and emigration, populations became stranded, resources were exhausted, warfare and violence erupted, and the population fell catastophically.
There is no clear evidence that this happened on the “mystery” islands, but it is clear that to sustain a population on a small island in profound isolation is extremely difficult.
By about 1000AD, most of the habitable islands of the world’s greatest ocean supported thriving populations.
The speed and daring of this expansion was incredible.
However, there are also some islands in the Pacific that were once settled by prehistoric people, then abandoned. Consideration of environmental and archaeological evidence about the latter suggests that they lay in a relatively impoverished zone of faunal resources (marine mammals, seabirds, inshore fish and invertebrates) and were also marginal to the full deployment of tropical agriculture.
These have been called the “mystery islands” by anthropologists, because there are often very few clues about what happened to their people. “14C Dates on Rattus Exulans Bones from Natural and Archaeological Contexts on Norfolk Island, South-West Pacific.” Archaeology in New Zealand 41.3 (1998): 195-198. It is argued that vulnerability to significant faunal depletion by over-exploitation, without the ability to compensate by agricultural production provides an explanation of settlement discontinuation in the subtropical islands and potentially for the mystery islands as a whole.” Anderson, Atholl J., and Peter White.
In some island ecosystems (such as Easter Island) there is evidence of disastrous ecological collapse. Protein supply was always a problem on smaller islands, and most larger land animals were quickly eaten to extinction.
Trade networks broke down, and interisland travel declined. “Archaeological Fieldwork on Norfolk Island.” The Prehistoric Archaeology of Norfolk Island, Southwest Pacific.
Some of the “mystery islands” include Necker and Nihoa Islands, northwest of Hawaii; Walpole, near New Caledonia; Pitcairn and Henderson in the eastern Pacific; Palmerston and Suwarrow in the Cook Islands; the Bonin Islands, 600 miles south of Japan; and several of the Phoenix and Line Islands in the central Pacific. “Prehistoric Settlement on Norfolk Island and its Oceanic Context.” The Prehistoric Archaeology of Norfolk Island, Southwest Pacific.
Additionally, there are some famous “mystery islands” off the Australian coast, notably Kangaroo Island near Adelaide, and the islands of Bass Strait between Tasmania and Victoria. “Faunal Collapse, Landscape Change and Settlement History in Remote Oceania.” World Archaeology 33.3 (2002): 375-390.
This bibliography gathers together the available research on three of these “mystery” island groups – Norfolk Island, the Kermadec Islands, and the Auckland Islands. “Approaching the Prehistory of Norfolk Island.” The Prehistoric Archaeology of Norfolk Island, Southwest Pacific.