Easter Island’s Society Might Not Have Collapsed

A new study of the tools used to create Easter Island's giant statues hints at a society in which people collaborated and shared information. (Image: Dale Simpson, Jr.)
A new study of the tools used to create Easter Island's giant statues hints at a society in which people collaborated and shared information. (Image: 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. Field Museum scientist Laure Dussubieux, one of the study’s authors, said:

Lead author Dale Simpson, Jr., an archaeologist from the University of Queensland, added:

The first people arrived on Easter Island (or, in the local language, Rapa Nui) about 900 years ago, 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 that 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 70 feet tall.

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.

Easter Island statues in Rano Raraku. (Image:: Dale Simpson, Jr.)

Easter Island statues in Rano Raraku. (Image: Dale Simpson, Jr.)

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 21 of about 1,600 stone tools made of volcanic stone called basalt that had been recovered in Van Tilburg’s excavations.

Examples of the Easter Island statues, or moai. (Image:: Dale Simpson, Jr.)

Examples of the Easter Island statues, or moai. (Image:: Dale Simpson, Jr.)

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. Dussubieux explained:

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 12m², 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. Dussubieux added:

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. Simpson explained:

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, saying:

While the society was later decimated by colonists and slavery, Rapa Nui culture has persisted.

Van Tilburg urges caution in interpreting the study’s results, saying:

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, saying:

Provided by: Field Museum [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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