What We Think About Easter Island Might Be All Wrong

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CC BY 2.0. Dale Simpson, Jr.

New research challenges the popular narrative about society's collapse on the Polynesian island.

Easter Island has long served as a cautionary tale. The popular account goes something like this: Polynesian seafarers found their way to the island (known locally as Rapa Nui) some 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile, and settled down. They grew in numbers, built the giant statues, and created a society that collapsed thanks to terrible infighting and over-exploitation of the island's natural resources.

Sound familiar? Aside from the building-of-giant-heads part, it's a narrative that resonates today. It serves as a microcosmic example in which the island could be compared to the planet – a finite amount of space with a finite amount of resources to sustain the a growing number of inhabitants. Things run out, people start fighting ... and hello dystopia.

But now, contrary to theories of the past, new research analyzing the tools used to make the statues, or moai, hints at what archaeologists say could have been a sophisticated society, a place where 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."

It was some 900 years ago when, according to oral tradition, two canoes found their way to the island – a settlement that grew to thousands. Somehow, they built nearly 1,000 heads – which are actually full bodies that have been buried over the years. The largest one is over seventy feet tall. Simpson notes that the number and size 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.

The team of researchers took a close look at 21 of 1,600 stone tools made of basalt that had been discovered during recent excavations. The goal was to gain a better understanding of the dynamic between tool makers and statue carvers. "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."

Given that there were numerous sources of basalt on the island, the team hoped to get an idea of how the stone was quarried and moved from source to building locations, hoping to shed light on prehistoric Rapa Nui society.

"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."

Upon determining the source of stone used for various tools, they found some clues.

"The majority of the toki [a type of tool] 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."

Simpson says that large-scale cooperation at this level doesn't jive with the idea that Easter Island's inhabitants ran out of resources and fought 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. Despite the devastating impacts made by colonists and slavery, Rapa Nui culture has persisted. "There are thousands of Rapa Nui people alive today – the society isn't gone," Simpson says. And they've got a thousand giant heads to remind them just how far they've come – maybe there's hope for the rest of us yet.

The paper was published in the Journal of Pacific Archaeology.