Researchers Piece Together What Happened On Rapa Nui Following European Contact

An aerial view over Ahu Tongariki, a large Ahu platform located on Easter Island. 15 moais still stand up at the southeast of the Island. abriendomundo/Shutterstock

Located just off the coast of Chile, the island of Rapa Nui holds secrets that continue to mystify archaeologists to this day. Who were its inhabitants and why did they build the enigmatic giant-headed statues known as moai? More importantly, what happened to the ancient society?

New research from an international team of scientists now attempts to answer those questions, proposing that the people of Easter Island were extremely resilient in the face of great tragedy.

Rapa Nui is known for its elaborate architecture, particularly the nearly 1,000 moai statues and hundreds of large ahu platforms that support them. There are a number of theories as to why the giant stone statues were constructed. The scientific community largely agrees that the statues were built to serve as a focal point for social and ritual activity, possibly to encourage fertile soil conditions or point to freshwater sources. Previous theories thought that the construction of the statues ceased sometime in the 1600s following a major societal collapse of ecological or cultural catastrophe – a hypothesis that scientists are now calling into question.

To determine when and how quickly the people of Rapa Nui ceased constructing monuments, researchers examined ahu radiocarbon dates, architectural stratigraphy, and ethnohistoric accounts of the island.

“Archaeologists assign ages to the archaeological record by getting what are known as radiocarbon dates,” said Carl Lipo, an anthropologist at Binghamton University, in a statement. “These dates represent the amount of time since some organisms (a bush, tree, etc.) died. Assembling groups of these dates together to look at patterns requires some sophisticated statistical analyses that have only recently been available to archaeologists. In this paper, we use these tools to provide the first-ever look at the history of platform construction on Easter Island."

Disease outbreak, murder, and slave-raiding are among the many “tragic events” that were recorded in the years following European contact. Adwo/Shutterstock

Construction of the statues began after the initial colonization of the island occurred, likely by Polynesian voyagers, sometime between the early-14th and mid-15th-centuries and increased quickly thereafter, continuing beyond European contact in 1722.

“What we found is that once people started to build monuments shortly after arrival to the island, they continued this construction well into the period after Europeans arrived,” said Lipo. “This would not have been the case had there been some pre-contact 'collapse' – indeed, we should have seen all construction stop well before 1722. The lack of such a pattern supports our claims and directly falsifies those who continue to support the ‘collapse’ account."

Disease outbreak, murder, and slave-raiding are among the many “tragic events” that were recorded in the years following European contact. Although these all had devastating effects, the people of Rapa Nui continued following their traditional practices in the face of “tremendous odds,” passing down their language, arts, and cultural practices through the generations.

“I think this degree of resilience has been overlooked due to the ‘collapse’ narrative and deserves recognition,’” said Lipa, adding that the findings call into question research that uses the island as an example of societal decline. Instead, it should be celebrated as an example of resilient communities even after being impacted by outsiders. The authors add that they hope to extend this approach to further studies looking at societal collapse theories around the world.  

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