The indigenous people of Easter Island, the Rapa Nui, experienced a societal collapse after the 17th century because they stripped the island clean of its natural resources. Or at least, that’s the leading theory. An analysis of the tools used by the Rapa Nui to build their iconic stone statues suggests a very different conclusion, pointing to the presence of a highly organised and cohesive society.
Located 3700km west of Chile, Easter Island is one of the most remote places on Earth. The 170km2 island was first inhabited by a group of Pacific Islanders between 1100 and 900 years ago, with these people forming the backbone of a civilisation that would last for hundreds of years. The Rapa Nui people are famous, of course, for those stunning humanoid statues known as moai, the tallest of which measure 10m high and weigh upward of 81 tonnes.
At some point before the 1700s, however, this civilisation experienced a collapse. The conventional theory is that the Rapa Nui people wiped the island clean of its trees, causing widespread erosion and food shortages, which in turn created civil strife and internal violence. Writing in the LA Times back in 2012, Thomas H. Maugh II said:
UCLA anthropologist Jared Diamond famously detailed what the called the “ecocide” of Rapa Nui in his 2005 book “Collapse”. When Polynesians first settled the island about AD 800, they had the misfortune to select one that was dry, cool and remote — and thus poorly fertilised by windblown dust or volcanic ash. They chopped down forests to provide wood for construction and for moving the moai, and the trees didn’t return. The denuded landscape allowed winds to blow off the topsoil, and fertility fell sharply. When the natives no longer had wood for building fishing canoes, they killed and ate all the birds. Before the Dutch arrived at the island on Easter Sunday in 1722, the population had descended into cannibalism and barbarity. Diamond called it “the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by over-exploiting its own resources”.
New research published today in the Journal of Pacific Archaeology is now offering a different perspective, showing that the Rapa Nui people maintained a thriving tool-building industry during the time of their alleged descent into “barbarity”.
“The idea of competition and collapse on Easter Island might be overstated,” Dale Simpson Jr, the lead author of the paper and an archaeologist from the University of Queensland, said in a statement. “To me, the stone-carving industry is solid evidence that there was cooperation among families and craft groups.”
To reach this conclusion, Simpson and his colleagues studied the stone quarries from which the Rapa Nui people collected their raw materials, namely volcanic basalt, to construct tools such as picks, chisels and toki, an axe-like implement. These tools were used to sculpt the moai sculptures and to carve canoes, among other things. The researchers also analysed 17 tools selected from the 1624 items recently excavated near the location of the moai statues.
The researchers were trying to determine where the raw materials used to manufacture the artefacts came from, and to see if these people were extracting the material close to where they lived.
To do so, the researchers cut off tiny pieces of stone from the toki using lasers, and used a mass spectrometer to analyse the different chemicals found within these samples. The chemical elements in these basalt samples were then compared to materials found within several other major quarries on the island.
This analysis showed that the majority of the toki came from a single quarry complex known as Rano Raraku. This finding, the researchers say, would seem to suggest that everyone on the island was using one type of stone, which must have required collaboration. So rather than ripping each other to shreds, as per the popular narrative, the Rapa Nui people were cooperating and sharing information with each other.
As the authors write in their paper:
[We] argue that [the] purposeful caching of toki and picks — including the 1624 specimens recovered around [the moai statues] does not represent a dramatic abandonment of moai carving as has been proposed and linked to the island’s alleged ‘collapse’, but instead highlights that [ancient statue carvers] were well organised and planned ahead by having a surplus of necessary materials on hand and ready to use making Rano Raraku a highly productive megalithic quarry; hence the production of ~1000 moai.
Simpson and his colleagues believe it’s unlikely that the Rapa Nui civilisation ran out of resources and fought amongst themselves to the point of extinction.
“There’s so much mystery around Easter Island, because it’s so isolated, but on the island, people were, and still are, interacting in huge amounts,” said Simpson. This society was later decimated by colonists and slavery, he said, but Rapa Nui culture has managed to live on. “There are thousands of Rapa Nui people alive today — the society isn’t gone,” he said.
Speaking to New Scientist, archaeologist Robert DiNapoli said the conclusion makes sense, and that “No particular clan seems to have control or differential access to these resources, so they must be cooperating in using them”.
DiNapoli said it’s entirely possible that this society went from cooperation to conflict, but there’s “simply no archaeological evidence for large scale conflict among the Rapa Nui,” adding that “Nearly all evidence points to a relatively peaceful society throughout prehistory”.
More archaeological evidence is needed to paint a clearer picture of this civilisation and the reasons for its eventual demise. Revealingly, the researchers admit that their interpretation needs to be viewed with caution.
“The near exclusive use of one quarry to produce these 17 tools supports a view of craft specialisation based on information exchange, but we can’t know at this stage if the interaction was collaborative,” said Jo Anne Van Tilburg, a co-author of the new study and a researcher at the University of California.
“It may also have been coercive in some way. Human behaviour is complex. This study encourages further mapping and stone sourcing, and our excavations continue to shed new light on moai carving.”