Easter Island’s Society Might Not Have Collapsed
“The idea of competition and collapse on Easter Island might be overstated,” says lead author of a new study, 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.”
The first people arrived on Easter Island (or, in the local language, Rapa Nui) about 900 years ago. “The founding population, according to oral tradition, was two canoes led by the island’s first chief, Hotu Matua,” 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 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 seventy feet tall.
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 twenty one of about 1,600 stone tools made of volcanic stone called basalt that had been recovered in Van Tilburg’s excavations. About half of the tools, called toki, recovered were fragments that suggested how they were used.
Large-scale co-operation contradicts apocalyptic narrative
“The majority of the toki 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.”
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. “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. While the society was later decimated by colonists and slavery, Rapa Nui culture has persisted. “There are thousands of Rapa Nui people alive today—the society isn’t gone,” Simpson explains
Dale Fredrick Simpson Jr. Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Laure Dussubieux. Geochemical and radiometric analyses of archaeological remains from Easter Island’s moai (statue) quarry reveal prehistoric timing, provenance, and use of fine–grain basaltic resources. Journal of Pacific Archaeology, 2018 [link]