A New Study Concludes That There Might Not Have Been A Spectacular Collapse Of Society On Easter Island

While colonists and slavery certainly helped create a fracture in the society on Easter Island, the culture of the Rapa Nui people still exists today.

Easter Island, which lies 2,300 miles away from Chile, is known by people around the world as a sacred place that has large, carved stone heads protruding out of the ground. Its history is very complex, but new research now shows that the collapse of its society might not have been as spectacular or large as has been previously thought.

Laure Dussubieux, a scientist from Field Museum, explained that the new study on Easter Island has revealed that residents cooperated with one another in a large-scale manner that wasn’t expected, as Popular Archaeology has reported.

“For a long time, people wondered about the culture behind these very important statues. This study shows how people were interacting, it’s helping to revise the theory.”

Dale Simpson Jr., who works at the University of Queensland and was the lead author of the new study, notes that “the idea of competition and collapse on Easter Island might be overstated. To me, the stone carving industry is solid evidence that there was cooperation among families and craft groups.”

The very first residents of Easter Island, who are known as the Rapa Nui locally, first happened upon the island 900 years ago. As tradition has it, Hotu Matua was Easter Island’s first chief, and he led his people in two canoes to the island. Over the course of centuries, this society quickly grew into thousands of people who eventually carved the famous statues of Easter Island that are known as moai, a work that would have required serious cooperation among the island’s inhabitants. There are around a thousand of these moai on Easter Island, and the tallest of these stretches an astonishing 70 feet.

As Simpson notes, just the sheer size and scale of the statues would have required enormous work and cooperation among the island’s inhabitants, and residents from priests to fishers would have helped with their construction.

“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.”

In order to fully understand the Easter Island inhabitants who would have painstakingly worked on these statues, scientists analyzed approximately 21 of the 1,600 stone tools constructed out of basalt that would have been used to chisel the moai.

Dussubieux explained that researchers wanted to learn more about the “raw materials used to manufacture the artifacts came from. We wanted to know if people were taking material from close to where they lived.”

As it turns out, three locations were found on Easter Island where the Rapa Nui would have gathered the materials to make their tools. Interestingly, the vast majority of the materials for these tools came from one specific quarry complex. What this would mean is that the residents of the island must have been communicating and collaborating with one another for the project to have been as successful as it was, according to Dussubiex.

“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 went on to add that despite slavery and colonists, the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island never truly disappeared.

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. There are thousands of Rapa Nui people alive today—the society isn’t gone.”

Despite popular ideas about the society of the Rapa Nui people on Easter Island collapsing, this new research shows this did not happen on as spectacular of a scale as was previously assumed.

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