Easter Island’s Ancient Society Was Complex and Sophisticated, New Study Shows

15 Août, 2018, 04:39 | Auteur: Anatole Charbonneau
  • Statues of heads known as ‘Moais’ stand at Rano Raraku the quarry on Easter Island

You probably know Easter Island as "the place with the giant stone heads".

The theory was popularised in 2005 by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.

Study lead author Dale Simpson Jr, University of Queensland, argued the idea the Eastern Island inhabitants collapsed through intense competition may have been "overstated".

Study co-author Dr Laure Dussubieux, of The Field Museum of Natural History in the United States, said: 'For a long time, people wondered about the culture behind these very important statues. CNN reports on the "unlikely method" of examining the society via of some of the stone tools used to carve the island's famous stone figures: Researchers performed a chemical analysis on four of the statues and fragments from 17 of the roughly 1,600 basalt tools, called toki, that had been excavated.

'To me, the stone carving industry is solid evidence that there was cooperation among families and craft groups'. "The founding population, according to oral tradition, was two canoes led by the island's first chief, Hotu Matu?a", says Simpson, who is now on the faculty of the College of DuPage.

The first people arrived on Easter Island about 900 years ago. There are almost a thousand statues, many buried up to their heads due to the passage of time.

While only appearing as heads today, the statues are actually buried, full-bodied figures, representing important Rapa Nui ancestors. The largest one is over seventy feet tall.

Instead of warring tribes and an island closely resembling the Hunger Games, Easter Island was home to a sophisticated society where its people actively shared information and collaborated frequently, the researchers said. "Ancient Rapa Nui had chiefs, priests, and guilds of workers who fished, farmed, and made the moai".

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The evidence was found by analysing the chemical make-up of the tools used to create the giant statues. "There was a certain level of sociopolitical organization that was needed to carve nearly a thousand statues", Simpson said. The goal was to gain a better understanding of the dynamic between tool makers and statue carvers. "We wanted to know if people were taking material from close to where they lived".

There are at least three different sources on Easter Island that the Rapa Nui used for material to make their stone tools. The basalt quarries cover the size of two football fields.

"Basalt is a grayish rock that doesn't look like anything special, but when you look at the chemical composition of the basalt samples from different sources, you can see very subtle differences in concentrations of different elements", explains Dussubieux.

They found that numerous tools came from the same mines, suggesting a high level of cooperation. "Rock from each source is different because of the geology of each site".

"The majority of the toki [a type of tool] came from one quarry complex - once the people found the quarry they liked, they stayed with it", says Simpson. "That's why they were so successful-they were working together".

This contrasts with the idea that the residents ran out of resources and fought amongst themselves, the researchers said. "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", says Simpson. But later on, it is believed that the arrival of colonists and the institution of slavery decimated the population. "There are thousands of Rapa Nui people alive today-the society isn't gone", Simpson explains.

But the researchers also urge caution and believe that this study is just the beginning, laying the groundwork for more research.

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