First settled between AD700-1200, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) was the site of a thriving civilisation and home for several hundred years to around 15,000 people. But historic records suggest that by the time Europeans arrived in the 18th century, the population had already fallen to below 3,000. Why?
It has been a subject of debate for many decades, but the most widely cited theory is that catastrophic environmental degradation (triggered by the arrival of the Polynesian rat, over-population and deforestation) ended in widespread violence that sealed the islanders’ fate. But now, a re-analysis of artefacts found on the island’s shores has removed support for the idea that the island’s population was ultimately destroyed by warfare.
Until now, the discovery of thousands of triangular obsidian objects, known as Mata’a, had been one of the main pieces of evidence supporting the warfare theory; they were assumed to be spearpoints, and presumably the remnants of fighting. But a new study by Professor Carl Lipo, an anthropologist from the University of Binghamton, suggests they weren’t weapons at all, but tools made for farming.
Of course, pretty much anything can be used as a weapon, even farming tools, but Lipo’s team carried out a morphometric analysis of over 400 Mata’a and showed that they would have made particularly poor weapons, and are far more likely to have been general purpose farming tools.
According to Lipo, the key finding that distinguishes them from intentionally designed weapons is that their shape varied significantly. Weapons, he says, typically need to be much more uniform in order to be effective in battle.
“Anything that you have can be a weapon. But under the conditions of warfare, weapons are going to have performance characteristics. And they’re going to be very carefully fashioned for that purpose because it matters” – Carl Lipo
The variability in the shape and size of the Mata’a makes it unlikely they were crafted for combat purposes. Instead, Professor Lipo and his team believe them be cultivation tools, or objects used for tasks like tattooing.
According to Lipo, the belief that the mata’a were weapons, and that warfare led to the island’s collapse is a late European interpretation of the record, and not an actual archaeological event. In fact, there’s a growing body of opinion that suggests Rapa Nui’s ancestors have been unfairly accused of being warlike and over-exploiting the island’s natural resources.
By rejecting the original interpretation attached to the archaeological record, Lipo’s team is opening up the scope for a new understanding of the Mata’a, and challenging the theory that one of the world’s most historic collapses was caused by internal warfare.
Alternative theories might then pay more attention to what happened later. Historic records suggest the island was still producing surplus when Europeans arrived, that their reactions to landing attempts in the 1700s were extremely hostile, and that the island’s population were ultimately devastated by the arrival of Peruvian slave raiders in the 1860s and a series of devastating epidemics, including smallpox and tuberculosis.
It’s a significant development and shift of emphasis in our understanding of Rapa Nui’s own history, and although the relative roles of deforestation and outside influence are still very much a topic of debate, it’s a vital reminder of just how much our interpretation of objects can shape, or even dramatically change, our understanding of the past.
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