New discovery throws doubt on theory of Easter Island’s descent into chaos

13 Aug 2018

Image: Olga Danylenko/Shutterstock

The idea that the ancient society that existed on Easter Island collapsed in a dramatic fashion is now being challenged by new findings.

Located almost 4,000km off the coast of Chile, Easter Island is world famous for its collection of mysterious giant head statues dotted around its surface.

While we have come to learn that the island was established by Polynesian seafarers, the fate of those who lived there continues to puzzle scientists.

The leading theory suggested that not long after the famous statues were erected, squabbling tribes threw the island into chaos, destroying itself as overexploitation of natural resources took hold.

However, a new discovery published in Pacific Archaeology by a team from the Field Museum in the US suggests that the real story is, in fact, far more complex.

Two boats, one people

The evidence was found by analysing the chemical make-up of the tools used to create the giant statues.

Instead of warring tribes and an island closely resembling the Hunger Games, Easter Island was home to a sophisticated society where its people actively shared information and collaborated frequently, the researchers said.

The first evidence of people on the island dates back to 900 years ago, when, according to oral tradition, groups of Polynesians arrived by two canoes led by the island’s first chief, Hotu Matu’a.

According to the researchers, over the years, the island – dubbed Rapa Nui in its local language – flourished, with its population numbering in the thousands, leading to the establishment of a complex society.

While only appearing as heads today, the statues are actually buried, full-bodied figures, representing important Rapa Nui ancestors. The largest statue is more than 20 metres tall.

Volcanic crater on Easter Island

Rano Kau volcano crater, one of the tool quarries used by the ancient Easter Island population. Image: Olga Danylenko/Shutterstock

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“Ancient Rapa Nui had chiefs, priests and guilds of workers who fished, farmed and made the moai (statues),” said the study’s lead author, Dale Simpson Jnr.

“There was a certain level of sociopolitical organisation that was needed to carve almost a thousand statues.”

The researchers went on to explain that a total of 1,600 tools made of the volcanic stone basalt found nearby were analysed as part of the study.

Around half of these tools (known as toki) were found as fragments. Using a laser cutter and mass spectrometer, the team was able to determine a collaborative society.

“The majority of the toki came from one quarry complex – once the people found the quarry they liked, they stayed with it,” said 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.”

Aside from shedding more light on the island’s former residents, the researchers believe it could help teach us wide-reaching insights into how societies work.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic