Historical tradition has long dictated that the civilization of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), a Chilean island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, fell after environmental resources became scarce. With little access, the people broke out into warfare, which decimated the population.
But according to Binghamton University archeologist Carl Lipo, there is actually little evidence supporting that long-held assumption about the island’s history. In this instance, archaeological tradition has trumped empirical inquiry, Lipo and colleagues claim in a new paper published in Antiquity.
“The island lacks evidence of systematic warfare,” the researchers write. “There is little trace, for example, of lethal trauma on skeletal material and none of the defensive structures that are common on the islands in the Pacific with known traditions of warfare.”
According to the researchers, the warfare demise hypothesis is primarily based on 20th century oral tradition. However, previous researchers claimed that the abundance of mata’a, “flaked obsidian tools with narrow stems and wide blades,” found on the island serve as evidence of their use as spear-like weapons for warfare.
But Lipo and colleagues believe the mata’a were likely used for different purposes. In their study, they examined 423 mata’a specimens, viewing them through a technique called morphometrics, which is the quantitative analysis of the various mata’a forms.
“Mata’a do not have the typical lanceolate form usually associated with weapons that are known to pierce the body, damage internal organs and cause bleeding,” the researchers write. “Instead, mata’a blades take a wide array of shapes, ranging from rounded to sub-angular, and from angular to complex.”
Previous research has noted that the mata’a resemble obsidian tools found on Pacific islands, such as New Britain. These tools were used for various activities, including tattooing and ritual scarification. Thus the mata’a may have been used for such practices on Rapa Nui, the researchers hypothesize.
“While they have sharp edges, mata’a are no more lethal than any other kind of rock. Indeed, as documented in European accounts, rock throwing from high points was the primary way in which native (Rapa Nui) fought Europeans and would have more probably been used as a mode of lethal force than mata’a,” the researchers write. “This conclusion does not imply that prehistoric islanders did not experience violence, only that mata’a do not appear to be related to systemic warfare where performance as lethal weapons would be paramount.”
Many have used the collapse of Rapa Nui as an analogue for the potential hazards modern civilizations face in the future. But if humanity is going to look to the past for lessons, it’s imperative that the past is well-documented and fully understood, the researchers argue.
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