Online Journal of Anthropology

easter island

Iconic moai statues found on Easter Island. Photo courtesy of Dr. Valentí Rull

Hundreds of iconic moai statues stand testament to the vibrant civilization that once inhabited Easter Island, but there are far fewer clues about why this civilization mysteriously vanished. Did they shortsightedly exhaust the island’s resources? Were they decimated by European illnesses and slave trade? Or did stow-away rats devastate the native ecosystem? Such theories have spread widely, but recent evidence shows that the truth is not as simple as any one of these alone.

“These different interpretations may be complementary, rather than incompatible,” said Dr. Valentí Rull. “In the last decade, there’s been a burst in new studies, including additional research sites and novel techniques, which demand that we reconsider the climatic, ecological and cultural developments that occurred.” Rull is a senior researcher of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona, Spain, and the lead author of an overview on the holistic reassessment of Easter Island history.

Iconic moai statues found on Easter Island. Photo courtesy of Dr. Valentí Rull

Until recently, the evidence has been limited. Prior sedimentary samples—commonly used as historical records of environmental change—were incomplete, with gaps and inconsistencies in the timeline. Furthermore, past interpretations relied heavily on pollen alone, without incorporating more faithful indicators of climate change. Due to this uncertainty, many fundamental questions remain, not only about why the culture disappeared, but also precisely when these events occurred and how this civilization developed in the first place.

Using the latest analytical methods, Rull and his collaborators are beginning to shed light on many of these questions. Complete sedimentary samples now show a continuous record of the last 3000 years, showing how droughts and wet seasons may have influenced the island’s population. Sea travel depended on such weather patterns, resulting in periods of cultural exchange or isolation. Rainfall also impacted native palm forests, with droughts potentially contributing to the island’s eventual deforestation. Radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis of artifacts and human remains are also showing where the inhabitants lived on the island, what they farmed and ate, and the influence of cultures beyond their Polynesian ancestors.

“These findings challenge classical collapse theories and the new picture shows a long and gradual process due to both ecological and cultural changes. In particular, the evidence suggests that there was not an island-wide abrupt ecological and cultural collapse before the European arrival in 1722,” said Rull.

There is much work yet to be done before this mystery is solved, but it is clear that neither environmental nor human activities are solely responsible for the events on Easter Island. Only a combined approach that encompasses climate, ecology, and culture will fully explain how this ancient civilization went extinct.

The article is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

 

(Text & Images’ Source: article by K.E.D. Coan, Frontiers)

 

 

 

 

 

 

BINGHAMTON, NY – Analysis of artifacts found on the shores of Rapa Nui, Chile (Easter Island) originally thought to be used as spear points reveal that these objects were likely general purpose tools instead, providing evidence contrary to the widely held belief that the ancient civilization was destroyed by warfare.

 

According to Carl Lipo, professor of anthropology at Binghamton University and lead on the study, the traditional story for Rapa Nui holds that the people, before Europeans arrived, ran out of resources and, as a result, engaged in massive in-fighting, which 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 surface, known as mata’a. Because of their large numbers and because they’re made of sharp glass, many believe the mata’a to be the weapons of war that the ancient inhabitants of the island used for interpersonal violence

 

Lipo and his team analyzed the shape variability of a photo set of 400-plus mata’a collected from the island using a technique known as morphometrics, which allowed them to characterize the shapes in a quantitative manner. Based on the wide variability in shape of the mata’a and their difference from other traditional weapons, the team determined that the mata’a were not used in warfare after all, as they would have made poor weapons.

 

“We found that when you look at the shape of these things, they just don’t look like weapons at all,” said Lipo. “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.”

 

“You can always use something as a spear. Anything that you have can be a weapon. But under the conditions of warfare, 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.”

 

According to Lipo, this evidence strongly supports the idea that the ancient civilization never experienced this oft-theorized combat and warfare, and that the belief that the mata’a were weapons used in the collapse of the civilization is really a late European interpretation of the record, not an actual archeological event.

 
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