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Easter Island Wasn’t Destroyed by War Says New Study, the Mystery Continues

The results exposed a wide variability in the shape of the mata'a, the researchers also found significant deviations from other traditional weapons. (Image:   Nicolas de Camaret via
The results exposed a wide variability in the shape of the mata'a, the researchers also found significant deviations from other traditional weapons. (Image: Nicolas de Camaret via flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )

New analysis of artifacts found on the shores of Rapa Nui, Chile (Easter Island), has now revealed these objects were likely to be general purpose tools. The new study goes against the widely held belief that the ancient civilization was destroyed by warfare.

The traditional story

The people of Rapa Nui, before Europeans arrived, had run out of needed resources to survive. Because of this, massive in-fighting occurred, leading to the collapse of the prehistoric society.

One of the main pieces of evidence anthropologists have used to support their theory is the thousands of obsidian (triangular objects that were found on the surface also known as mata’a).

Because large numbers of them have been found, and since they are made of sharp glass, many researchers believed the mata’a were weapons of war. This led them to the conclusion that the ancient inhabitants used them for interpersonal violence.

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These are images of various mata’a. (Image: Carl Lipo, Binghamton University)

The study

The researchers, led by Carl Lipo, a professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, analyzed the shape variability of a photo set of over 400 mata’a collected from the island. Using a technique known as morphometrics they were able to quantitatively characterize the shapes of the artifacts.

The results exposed a wide variability in the shape of the mata’a, the researchers also found significant deviations from other traditional weapons. This led the team to conclude that the mata’a were not made for warfare, believing the design would have made for poor weapons.

Lipo said in a statement:

A mata’a found on Easter Island by Edna Reed (British Civil Servant) in 1966. (Image: Simon Evans via CC BY-SA 3.0)

The findings

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.

The team theorize the mata’a are cultivation tools used in ritual tasks like tattooing or domestic activities such as plant processing, and this is why they are found all over the island.

The paper titled: “Weapons of war? Rapa Nui mata’a 1 morphometric analyses” was published in Antiquity.

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