Long-standing mystery surrounding Easter Island has been solved

Artifacts unearthed in Rapa Nui, Chile once believed to have been spearheads were more likely used as general purpose tools instead, a new analysis has discovered, indicating that the ancient civilization of Easter Island was not wiped out by warfare as previously believed.

The new study, led by Binghamton University anthropology professor Carl Lipo and published in the latest edition of the journal Antiquity, looked at the thousands of triangle-shaped, obsidian objects known as mata’a found on the surface of the island – long thought to be weapons due to their quantity and the fact that they were made of sharp glass.

easter island

These are images of various mata’a. Credit: Carl Lipo, Binghamton University

Previous research had concluded that, as the Rapa Nui culture began to run out of food and other resources, the people began to turn on one-another and the mata’a were used as their weapons of choice in this conflict. However, Lipo and his colleagues have determined that this is unlikely, as the mata’s shape and characteristics indicate that they would have made poor weapons.

“When you look at the shape of these things, they just don’t look like weapons at all. When you can compare them to European weapons or weapons found anywhere around the world… they’re very systematic in their shape,” the Binghamton professor said in a statement. “They have to do their job really well. Not doing well is risking death.”

But if the mata’a weren’t spearheads, what were they?

Lipo’s team conducted an in-depth analysis of the shape variability of more than 400 mata’a that had been collected from the island, applying a special technique called morphometrics to a series of photographs that allowed them to quantitatively characterize each of the objects’ shapes.

They found a wide variability in the shape of the supposed spearheads, and based on the apparent inappropriateness of these objects as weapons of war, the researchers propose the notion that the Easter Island civilization was wiped out by interpersonal combat is unlikely. Rather, the team believes this notion was the result of a European misinterpretation of recorded events.

“You can always use something as a spear. Anything that you have can be a weapon,” said Lipo. “But under the conditions of warfare, weapons are going to have performance characteristics, and they’re going to be very carefully fashioned for that purpose because it matters… You would cut somebody [with a mata’a], but they certainly wouldn’t be lethal in any way.”

“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 continued, adding that he and his colleagues believe that the objects were actually cultivation tools used for ritual tattooing or domestic tasks such as the processing of plants.


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