For decades we have been told that the Rapa Nui, the people who lived on Easter Island in the South Pacific, committed eco-suicide. The story went that, having used up most of their resources, the ancient Polynesians sealed their fate through bloody fighting over the meagre remains.
But increasingly it appears we have defamed them.
First there was the archaeological evidence that, far from overtaxing the remote island’s fragile environment, the Rapa Nui were actually clever agricultural engineers.
And now scientists have reappraised the thousands of obsidian, triangular objects found on the island, known as mata’a.
Previously these were believed to be spear points used in warfare during the bloody last days of the Rapa Nui. New analysis suggests the artifacts were more likely to be general purpose tools.
“We found that when you look at the shape of these things, they just don’t look like weapons at all,” says Carl Lipo, professor of anthropology at Binghamton University who led the study.
“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.”
Lipo and his team analysed the shape variability of more than 400 mata’a using a technique known as morphometrics, which allowed them to characterise the shapes in a quantitative manner. The result showed the objects would have made poor weapons.
“You would cut somebody with a mata’a, but they certainly wouldn’t be lethal in any way,” says Lipo.
Lipo believs the earlier narrative is a late European interpretation of the record, not an actual archaeological 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,” he said.
Lipo and his team believe that the mata’a were used in ritual tasks such as tattooing or even for gardening.
“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,” he said.
The paper, “Weapons of war? Rapa Nui mata’a 1 morphometric analyses”, was published in Antiquity.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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