Last updated August 14, 2018 at 10:30 am
Evidence confirming that early life may not have been as unsophisticated and combative as many assume.
For many years there was a view that the Polynesian seafarers who made remote Easter Island home about 900 years ago built a society clever enough to carve the famous and still mysterious giants stone statues (moai), then destroyed it through infighting and over-exploitation of natural resources.
More recently, however, doubts have been expressed about whether the islanders really damaged their environment, and now two recent studies suggest that rather than being a warlike place, Rapu Nui, as the locals know it, was organised and the people happily collaborated and shared information.
The first, reported last December by Binghamton University in New York, followed the study of 70 enormous stone hats (pukao) found scattered around the island.
The second, just published in the Journal of Pacific Archaeology by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, follows a detailed examination of the chemical makeup of the tools used to create the sculptures.
And according to lead author Dale Simpson Jr, an archaeologist from the University of Queensland, it suggests that “the idea of competition and collapse on Easter Island might be overstated”.
“Ancient Rapa Nui had chiefs, priests and guilds of workers who fished, farmed and made the moai. There was a certain level of socio-political organisation that was needed to carve almost a thousand statues,” he says.
After four statues were excavated in the inner region of Rano Raraku, Simpson and colleagues took a detailed look at 21 of the 1600 tools (toki) made from a volcanic stone called basalt that also were recovered.
Chemical analysis showed that the majority came from one quarry complex, despite there being at least three different sources on the island. Rock from each site is slightly different in composition.
One type of stone
“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.”
The researchers urge caution in reading too much into the results, with the Director of the EISP, Jo Anne Van Tilburg from the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology in California, noting that they can’t know at this stage whether the approach was collaborative or coercive.
However, Field Museum research scientist Laure Dussubieux highlights the broader insights the study provides into how societies work.
“What happens in this world is a cycle, what happened in the past will happen again. Most people don’t live on a small island, but what we learn about people’s interactions in the past is very important for us now because what shapes our world is how we interact.”