Easter Island Wasn’t Destroyed By War

For centuries, there has been this belief that Rapa Nui suffered a catastrophic population crash, possibly due to war. But there is no scientific evidence to support this idea, say a group of researchers in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity.

These moai on Easter Island were so imposing that Europeans couldn't believe they'd been created by just a couple thousand people. Photo: Arian Zwegers
These moai on Easter Island were so imposing that Europeans couldn’t believe they’d been created by just a couple thousand people. Photo: Arian Zwegers

The authors studied sharpened pieces of obsidian, called mata’a, which look  to the untrained eye alarmingly like spearheads. They used the mata’a as archeological serrogates for what was going on with the Rapa.  If these mata’a were used for war, one would expect that they would all be uniform. But he mata’a studied came in a range of shapes, and most of them would be terrible for stabbing. Shaped a bit like spades, they’re generally too wide to sink deeply into flesh. Wear and tear on many of the blades revealed patterns that archaeologists recognize as coming from tasks like scraping hide and farming. All those mata’a left in the ground weren’t the aftermath of battle—they were discarded hoes and rakes.

So if the Rapa Nui didn’t kill each other off, what did? Disease after European contact, like smallpox and plague ripped through Easter Island, halving the population in a short time.

3 thoughts on “Easter Island Wasn’t Destroyed By War

  1. Hi!

    I love your blog! I read that they thought what happened to the Rapa Nui was that they decimated the forest by transporting the Moai on logs. Once they had cut down most of the trees new ones could not thrive because of erosion and lack of protection, they couldn’t make new boats and the birds they ate no longer came to nest, so they starved to death!

    Probably you had already heard this version, but in case not…

    Thanks for all your great posts! Margot

    On Wed, Feb 17, 2016 at 11:55 PM, Anthropology.net wrote:

    > Kambiz Kamrani posted: “For centuries, there has been this belief that > Rapa Nui suffered a catastrophic population crash, possibly due to war. But > there is no scientific evidence to support this idea, say a group of > researchers in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity. Th” >

  2. What do you make of the narrative that Easter Island ran out of trees from building too many Moai over too short a time? I’m referring to the story told in A Short HIstory of Progress by Ronald Wright.

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