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.
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.