Easter Island's Ancient Society May Not Have Collapsed in Ways Previously Thought

Examples of the Easter Island statues, or moai. Dale Simpson, Jr.

Located 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile and dotted with huge stone heads, remote Easter Island has long been a place of mystery.

The traditional narrative of its history suggests that it was populated by Polynesian seafarers who went on to build great things but then later destroyed their own society through infighting and overexploitation of natural resources.

But a study published in the Journal of Pacific Archaeology indicated that perhaps the story was more complex, and the island's society did not collapse in the way that has been previously suggested.

An international team of researchers analyzed the chemical makeup of tools used to create the island's iconic large stone sculptures, finding evidence of a sophisticated civilization in which people collaborated and shared information.

"For a long time, people wondered about the culture behind these very important statues," Laure Dussubieux, an author of the study from the Field Museum, said in a statement. "This study shows how people were interacting. It's helping to revise the theory."

According to lead author Dale Simpson Jr., an archaeologist at the University of Queensland, the idea of rampant competition and collapse on Easter Island may have been overstated.

"To me, the stone carving industry is solid evidence that there was cooperation among families and craft groups," he said.

It is thought that the first people arrived on Easter Island, known as Rapa Nui in the local language, around 900 years ago. According to oral tradition, this founding population arrived on two canoes led by the island's first chief, Hotu Matu'a.

Over time, the population increased into the thousands and a complex society began to form. Today, this ancient society is best known for creating the iconic stone heads or moai, which are actually full-body figures that have gradually become buried over the years.

There are nearly a thousand of these scattered across the island, the largest of which stands more than 70 feet tall. They are thought to represent important Rapa Nui ancestors, and the researchers believe they indicate the existence of a complex society.

"Ancient Rapa Nui had chiefs, priests, and guilds of workers who fished, farmed, and made the moai," Simpson said. "There was a certain level of socio-political organization that was needed to carve almost a thousand statues."

For their study, the researchers examined tools made from the volcanic stone basalt found during the recent excavations of four statues in the region of Rano Raraku—the statue quarry—in the hopes of understanding how the manufacturing industry functioned.

The results of the chemical analysis of these tools—known as toki—suggest a high level of collaboration in the production of the statues.

"The majority of the toki came from one quarry complex—once the people found the quarry they liked, they stayed with it," said 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."

Simpson argued that this level of large-scale cooperation contradicted the popular narrative that the island's inhabitants ran out of resources and destroyed themselves through war.

What is certain is that the ancient society was later decimated by colonists and slavery. Despite this, there are still thousands of Rapa Nui living today, and their culture has persisted.

"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," Simpson said.

But one of the authors of the study, Jo Anne Van Tilburg, from the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, and director of the Easter Island Statue Project, said that the latest results should be viewed with caution for now.

"The near exclusive use of one quarry to produce these 17 tools supports a view of craft specialization based on information exchange, but we can't know at this stage if the interaction was collaborative," she said.

"It may also have been coercive in some way. Human behavior is complex. This study encourages further mapping and stone sourcing, and our excavations continue to shed new light on moai carving."