The history of Easter Island, a 165-square-kilometer (64-square-mile) piece of land in the South Pacific Ocean, remains shrouded in mystery. It’s long been thought that ecological collapse once led to violent internal wars on the island, destroying a society that once thrived there. However, according to a new study published in the Journal of Pacific Archaeology, this may not have been the case, as the island’s ancient inhabitants were likely more cooperative that we thought.
The first people to arrive on Easter Island came by canoe from Polynesia around 1200 CE. An intriguing culture began to flourish, and the people that lived there, known as the Rapa Nui, began constructing their world-famous moai statues – huge stone figures carved between 1250 and 1500 CE. It is these impressive sculptures that led the researchers to their discovery.
A common theory about the demise of the Rapa Nui is that they deforested the island, running out of wood to build boats that allowed them to fish. This loss of resources led to violent conflict, starvation, and even cannibalism, killing off the island’s inhabitants. Most of the population were dead by the 1860s.
But did this savage warfare actually take place?
Evidence is mounting that this was not actually the case. A new study has thrown even more doubt on this theory by suggesting that the island’s people were actually very cooperative and their society complex, thanks to analysis of tools used to create the island’s unique statues.
"Ancient Rapa Nui had chiefs, priests, and guilds of workers who fished, farmed, and made the moai,” explained lead author Dale Simpson in a statement. “There was a certain level of sociopolitical organization that was needed to carve almost a thousand statues."
The Rapa Nui used basalt rock from quarries on the island to create tools with which to form their masterpieces. The researchers looked at 21 excavated stone tools called toki. Chemical analysis suggested many of them originated in the same place.
"The majority of the toki came from one quarry complex – once the people found the quarry they liked, they stayed with it," said Simpson. "For everyone to be using one type of stone, I believe they had to collaborate. That's why they were so successful – they were working together."
Therefore, it seems members of different clans might have shared information and resources, which doesn’t really point to a history of violent conflict.
What’s more, previous research has also shown that the Rapa Nui didn’t just depend on seafood – they farmed food on land, so losing the ability to build fishing boats may not have been detrimental enough to incite war.
Nevertheless, Easter Island’s past is still mysterious, and we don’t know for sure how cooperative its people were. Cooperative societies can certainly descend into conflict when the circumstances are right, but archaeological evidence for this is lacking on Easter Island.
Eventually, the Rapa Nui fell victim to colonists and the slave trade, but the people were not lost forever.
"There are thousands of Rapa Nui people alive today – the society isn't gone," said Simpson.