Easter Island's society might not have collapsed

Easter Island's society might not have collapsed
Examples of the Easter Island statues, or moai. Credit: Dale Simpson, Jr.

You probably know Easter Island as "the place with the giant stone heads." This remote island 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile has long been seen as mysterious—a place where Polynesian seafarers set up camp, built giant statues, and then destroyed their own society through in-fighting and over-exploitation of natural resources. However, a new article in the Journal of Pacific Archaeology hints at a more complex story—by analyzing the chemical makeup of the tools used to create the big stone sculptures, archaeologists found evidence of a sophisticated society where the people shared information and collaborated.

"For a long time, people wondered about the culture behind these very important statues," says Field Museum scientist Laure Dussubieux, one of the study's authors. "This study shows how people were interacting, it's helping to revise the theory."

"The idea of competition and collapse on Easter Island might be overstated," says lead author Dale Simpson, Jr., an archaeologist from the University of Queensland. "To me, the stone carving industry is solid evidence that there was cooperation among families and craft groups."

The first people arrived on Easter Island (or, in the local language, Rapa Nui) about 900 years ago. "The founding population, according to oral tradition, was two canoes led by the island's first chief, Hotu Matu?a," says Simpson, who is currently on the faculty of the College of DuPage. Over the years, the population rose to the thousands, forming the complex society that carved the statues Easter Island is known for today. These statues, or moai, often referred to as "Easter Island heads," are actually full-body figures that became partially buried over time. The moai, which represent important Rapa Nui ancestors, number nearly a thousand, and the largest one is over seventy feet tall.

Easter Island's society might not have collapsed
Easter Island moai. Credit: Dale Simpson, Jr.

According to Simpson, the size and number of the moai hint at a complex society. "Ancient Rapa Nui had chiefs, priests, and guilds of workers who fished, farmed, and made the moai. There was a certain level of sociopolitical organization that was needed to carve almost a thousand statues," says Simpson.

Recent excavations of four statues in the inner region of Rano Raraku, the statue quarry, were conducted by Jo Anne Van Tilburg of Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA and director of the Easter Island Statue Project, along with her Rapa Nui excavation team. To better understand the society that fabricated two of the statues, Simpson, Dussubieux, and Van Tilburg took a detailed look at twenty one of about 1,600 made of volcanic stone called basalt that had been recovered in Van Tilburg's excavations. About half of the tools, called toki, recovered were fragments that suggested how they were used.

For Van Tilburg, the goal of the project was to gain a better understanding of how tool makers and statue carvers may have interacted, thus gaining insight into how the statue production industry functioned. "We wanted to figure out where the raw materials used to manufacture the artifacts came from," explained Dussubieux. "We wanted to know if people were taking material from close to where they lived."

There are at least three different sources on Easter Island that the Rapa Nui used for material to make their stone tools. The basalt quarries cover twelve thousand square meters, an area the size of two football fields. And those different quarries, the tools that came from them, and the movement between geological locations and archaeological sites shed light on prehistoric Rapa Nui society.

Easter Island's society might not have collapsed
More Easter Island statues in Rano Raraku. Credit: Dale Simpson, Jr.

"Basalt is a grayish rock that doesn't look like anything special, but when you look at the chemical composition of the basalt samples from different sources, you can see very subtle differences in concentrations of different elements," explains Dussubieux. "Rock from each source is different because of the geology of each site."

Dussubieux led the chemical analysis of the stone tools. The archaeologists used a laser to cut off tiny pieces of stone from the toki and then used an instrument called a mass spectrometer to analyze the amounts of different chemical elements present in the samples. The results pointed to a society that Simpson believes involved a fair amount of collaboration.

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

To Simpson, this level of large-scale cooperation contradicts the popular narrative that Easter Island's inhabitants ran out of resources and warred themselves into 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," says Simpson. While the society was later decimated by colonists and slavery, Rapa Nui culture has persisted. "There are thousands of Rapa Nui people alive today—the society isn't gone," Simpson explains.

Van Tilburg urges caution in interpreting the study's results. "The near exclusive use of one quarry to produce these seventeen tools supports a view of craft specialization based on information exchange, but we can't know at this stage if the interaction was collaborative. It may also have been coercive in some way. Human behavior is complex. This study encourages further mapping and stone sourcing, and our excavations continue to shed new light on moai carving." In addition to potentially paving the way for a more nuanced view of the Rapa Nui people, Dussubieux notes that the study is important because of its wider-reaching insights into how societies work. "What happens in this world is a cycle, what happened in the past will happen again," says Dussubieux. "Most people don't live on a small island, but what we learn about people's interactions in the past is very important for us now because what shapes our world is how we interact."

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Easter Island had a cooperative community, analysis of giant hats reveals

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Aug 13, 2018
Same ole same ole

"the condition of human bones from this period indicates that the Norse population [of greenland] was malnourished, maybe due to soil erosion resulting from the Norsemen's destruction of natural vegetation in the course of farming, turf-cutting, and wood-cutting."

-Vikings left the mainland because there was not enough arable land to go around. Pops swell, consume everything in sight, the land becomes unable to support them, and etc.

Doesnt matter if inhabitants died fighting each other, or just died.

Aug 14, 2018
Same ole same ole

Have you read the article? It was very clear that nothing drastic happened until colonists brought diseases and slavery; the population has even recovered to earlier levels.

As for Greenland, I dunno were your quote came from, but repeated science tell us there was a confluence of factors (climate, continental plague, ...) that removed their primary industry of, and market for, walrus ivory export coincident with lowered farming productivity.

"Instead, he says, these "pretty good managers" actively adapted to the cooling climate. In the end, however, their best efforts fell short."



Aug 14, 2018
but repeated science tell us
Repeated science tells us that there is a concerted effort to avoid admitting to both endemic overpopulation and tribalism within the tropical human species. Does that mean theyre not true, or just not politically convenient?
It was very clear that nothing drastic happened until colonists brought diseases and slavery; the population has even recovered to earlier levels
WHAT HAPPENED to all the vegetation???

Re my quote, just google it.

Aug 14, 2018
I always wonder why so many anthropologists ignore what the people themselves had to say, and the Easter Islanders really did have an oral history of a revolution. Experimental work in Hawaii has shown that the islanders "myth" that statues moved from the quarry to the ahu "walking" by themselves is a very large grain of truth. Experiment shows the statues could have been erect by "walking" them in much the same way a stevedore may move a fuel drum by hand. There's a very good documentary of the experimental work. If that seems reasonable, why call the native people liars or fantasists about the rest of their oral history?

Aug 14, 2018
why call the native people liars or fantasists about the rest of their oral history?

At least in part because Thor Heyerdahl did the early ethnographic and archeological work on Rapa Nui, and the establishment hates him.

Aug 15, 2018
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