The causes that led to the decline of the civilization of Rapa Nui, Chile, the famous builders of giant statues on Easter Island, remains a mystery. One theory suggests that the Europeans brought diseases which killed thousands, but many researchers believe that the decline came before. As said in a report from Phys.org on February 16, the widely held belief was that the ancient civilization was destroyed by warfare.
Researchers previously believed that overpopulation devastated forests and ended their food resources, prompting residents to participate in brutal civil wars that led to the collapse. However, a reanalysis of several triangular spear-like blades made of obsidian suggests the tools weren’t intended for violence.
One of the tests used to support this hypothesis are blades, known as mata’a, found off the coast of the island located almost 2,300 kilometers from the coast of Chile. Because of their large number, and because they are made of sharp glass, they were thought to be weapons of war. However, Carl Lipo, professor of anthropology at the American University of Binghamton, does not believe that these objects are spearheads, but general purpose tools. That is, they were not intended to be employed in any battle.
“We found that when you look at the shape of these things, they just don’t look like weapons at all,” Lipo explained. “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 and his team analyzed shape variability of over 400 mata’a using a technique known as morphometry, allowing them to characterize forms in a quantitative manner. Based on the wide variability in the shape of these objects and their differences from other traditional weapons, the team determined that the mata’a were not used in war.
Though mata’a blades would be able to cut someone, scientists say they wouldn’t have been lethal. A report from UPI states that Lipo and his colleagues argue that under warfare conditions, weapons would have been produced more systematically.
According to the researcher, this evidence strongly supports the idea that the ancient civilization of Rapa Nui never experienced bloody warfare. In his view, the belief that mata’a were used as weapons in the collapse of civilization is really a European interpretation, not an actual archaeological event.
“What people traditionally think about the island is being this island of catastrophe and collapse just isn’t true in a pre-historic sense. Populations were successful and lived sustainably on the island up until European contact,” says Lipo.
Lipo and his team believe that these objects found throughout the landscape were actually farming tools used in ritual tasks like tattoos or domestic activities, such as processing plants. For this reason, the anthropologist believes that the theory of collapse is not justified and that the inhabitants of Easter Island were a productive and successful people.