Mystery Of Easter Island Inhabitants Deepens

The Rapanui of Easter Island built the iconic moai, but their demise remains something of a mystery. Tadas_Jucys /Shutterstock

Living on a small, isolated speck of land in the remote eastern Pacific, one could hardly blame the Rapanui for being at each others' throats. However, contrary to popular beliefs about the demise of Easter Island's enigmatic ancient inhabitants, new archaeological data suggests they may not have wiped themselves out through violent warfare.

Located more than 3,500 kilometers (2,000 miles) to the west of mainland South America, Easter island is thought to have first been colonized by Polynesians in the 13th century. Despite an apparently desolate landscape lacking in natural resources, the Rapanui civilization that sprang up here invested heavily in the creation of almost 1,000 enormous moai – the iconic stone heads with which the island is synonymous.

Many researchers have suggested that unsustainable practices such as this precipitated an environmental collapse, sparking deadly conflicts between inhabitants as resources on the island ran out, and eventually leading to their disappearance. Yet while this view has become the most widely accepted account of the Rapanui's downfall, more recent evidence has begun to challenge this telling of events.

For instance, by studying historical accounts written by the first Europeans to reach Easter Island in 1722, in combination with archaeological studies of ancient artefacts, some researchers have begun to suggest that the Rapanui, in fact, had a balanced and sustainable relationship with their environment, and may have been destroyed by diseases brought over from the Old World.

Now, a new paper in the journal Antiquity has cast yet more doubt on the popular 'collapse' scenario, indicating that widespread warfare on the island may be a historical fallacy. To reach this conclusion, the study authors examined a number of obsidian tools called mata'a, which have been found in large numbers across Easter Island, and had previously been identified as arrowheads used in violent conflicts.


Contrary to popular belief, the mata'a collected on Easter Island may not have been weapons. Carl Lipo, Binghamton University

After examining 118 mata'a collected from four separate locations on the island, and studying photographs of a further 305, the researchers note that these items were, in fact, unlikely to have been weapons at all, and were more likely to have been multi-purpose tools. For instance, they describe how the samples varied greatly in shape, rather than adhering to a definitive lance-shape that would be expected of an arrowhead.

In fact, none of the mata'a included in the study appeared to have been shaped into the shape of an arrowhead, leading the researchers to conclude that they would have made extremely poor weapons, incapable of piercing the skin and no more threatening than any other rock.

Furthermore, after examining cuts and markings on the surfaces of the mata'a, the researchers found evidence that they had been used for a variety of purposes such as scraping, cutting and grinding, therefore suggesting that they were not instruments of warfare but general-use appliances.

Previously, the presence of these mata'a on the island had provided one of the most compelling strands of evidence for the occurrence of widespread warfare among the Rapanui, yet this entire version of their history may now be discredited by the new study. However, the study authors note that, although their findings would appear to rule out the use of mata'a as lethal weapons, this does not necessarily preclude the occurrence of violence and in-fighting among the Rapanui.

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