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.
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:
“We found that when you look at the shape of these things, they just don’t look like weapons at all.
“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.
“What people traditionally think about the island is being this island of catastrophe and collapse just isn’t true in a pre-historic sense. Populations were successful and lived sustainably on the island up until European contact,” Lipo said.
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.
“We’ve been trying to focus on individual bits of evidence that support the collapse narrative to demonstrate that really there’s no support whatsoever for that story,” Lipo explains.
“Sort of a pillar of the broader study is the fact that this is an amazing society that really was successful. It just doesn’t look like success to us because we see fields that are rock, we think catastrophe, and in fact it’s actually productivity.”
The paper titled: “Weapons of war? Rapa Nui mata’a 1 morphometric analyses” was published in Antiquity.