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Easter Island Society Didn’t Collapse In War, But Thrived In Cooperation: Study

Aug 15, 2018 07:29 PM EDT
Rapa Nui
A new study exploring the ancient civilization of Easter Island contradicts previous assumptions that the society collapsed in warfare. Instead, the Rapa Nui people practiced collaboration, as shown by the composition of their stone tools.
(Photo : Marlene Hanssen | Pixabay)

To many people, Easter Island is familiar only by the iconic stone sculptures called "moai" that dot the stunning land.

True enough, the statues play a major part in understanding the island and its people, but even beyond the awe-inspiring moai, this remote island off the coast of Chile belies a rich history and potentially sophisticated society that experts are only starting to unearth.

For the study published in the Journal of Pacific Archaeology, archaeologists analyzed the chemical properties of ancient tools to learn more about the elusive society.

The Ancient People Of Easter Island

Field Museum reveals that the first people arrived on the island 900 years ago on just two canoes. Through the years, the complex society thrived to the thousands, making the region their own and building thousands of the now-famous moai structures. The largest ever is more than 70 feet high.

The existence of the moai structures are enough to suggest a complex civilization.

"Ancient Rapa Nui had chiefs, priests, and guilds of workers who fished, farmed, and made the moai," lead author Dale Simpson, Jr., an archaeologist from the University of Queensland, says, adding that a certain level of sociopolitical organization is necessary to achieve nearly a thousand statues.

Tools Tell The Island's History

To better understand the people who worked on these statues, Simpson and his colleagues analyzed the composition of 21 of about 1,600 stone tools called "toki" that were excavated with four statues in the inner region Rano Raraku.

Part of the study was to figure out where the materials for the tools came from. According to Laure Dussubieux, an author of the study and Field Museum scientist, the team wanted to know if the people were simply using material that's near their camp.

The tools are made from volcanic stone called basalt, of which were found in at least three different quarries in the island. There are subtle differences in the rocks from each source due to the differences in geology, so scientists are able to pinpoint where the materials to make the tools were obtained.

The results of the chemical analysis strongly suggest a collaborative society in prehistoric Easter Island.

"The majority of the toki came from one quarry complex — once the people found the quarry they liked, they stayed with it," Simpson explains. "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."

For a long time, the ancient society was believed to be extinct after succumbing to in-fighting and the destruction of their natural resources.

However, the study authors say that the island's inhabitants interacted significantly. Over the centuries, Easter Island became colonized by Europeans and many of the inhabitants were sold into slavery. Still, until modern times, there are Rapa Nui people who continue live in the island.

Of course, it's also important to be aware of the study limitations.

While the tools' analysis supports the idea of information exchange among the prehistoric people, it doesn't necessarily mean collaboration, coauthor Jo Anne Van Tilburg of the Easter Island Statue Project explains. Coercion is also possible.

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