Easter Island warfare has been the long-held belief for the decline of the island’s early inhabitants. Easter Island, a 63-square mile island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean famous for its 887 moai monolithic human figures, saw a sudden drop in its Polynesian inhabitants, the Rapa Nui. While warfare has been the go-to reason, new research suggests that the settlers of the island in the Polynesian Triangle, who established a thriving and industrious culture on Easter Island sometime between 300 and 1200 CE, were in fact not wiped out by infighting and assaults over dwindling resources.
Writes Science World Report on Feb. 16: “The traditional story for Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, holds that before the Europeans arrived, the people of the island ran out of resources. This resulted in massive in-fighting which eventually led to their collapse. One of the pieces of evidence used to support this theory is the thousands of obsidian, triangular objects found on the island.”
In addition to the iconic stone statues, Easter Island is littered with carved triangles made of volcanic glass, which most archaeologists said were used to tip spears. But new research coming out of Binghamton University in New York says the islanders used those sharp objects, called mata’a, not as weapons, but as tools.
According to the study, researchers analyzed over 400 mata’a, reviewing their size, shape and variability from one another. The data was then compared to traditional weapons from that same time period. The team determined that the mata’a could not have been used for warfare; their small size alone would have made a very ineffective weapon.
“We found that when you look at the shape of these things, they just don’t look like weapons at all,” commented Carl Lipo, professor of anthropology at Binghamton University and study lead, according to NewsWire. “When you can compare them to European weapons or weapons found anywhere around the world when there are actually objects used for warfare, they’re very systematic in their shape. They have to do their job really well. Not doing well is risking death.”
Lipo added that in a state of war, which researchers have traditionally held regarding the decline of the Rapa Nui, “weapons are going to have performance characteristics. And they’re going to be very carefully fashioned for that purpose because it matters… You would cut somebody with a mata’a, but they certainly wouldn’t be lethal in any way.”
Lipo said his team believes the small obsidian shapes were used in a ritualistic way, like early tattooing, or simply used in farming.
“We’ve been trying to focus on individual bits of evidence that support the collapse narrative to demonstrate that really there’s no support whatsoever for that story,” he said. “Sort of a pillar of the broader study is the fact that this is an amazing society that really was successful. It just doesn’t look like success to us because we see fields that are rock, we think catastrophe, and in fact it’s actually productivity.”
So what did cause the collapse of the Rapa Nui?
In early 2015, a team of geographers and archaeologists from the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the natives simply exhausted their food sources and either died off or fled the island, long before European explorers arrived in 1722.
The big-headed monoliths of Easter Island remain one of the islands most enduring mysteries and attractions. According to History.com, the average moai bust is 13 feet high with a weight of 13 tons. The statues are “carved out of tuff (the light, porous rock formed by consolidated volcanic ash) and placed atop ceremonial stone platforms called ahus. It is still unknown precisely why these statues were constructed in such numbers and on such a scale, or how they were moved around the island.”