War for Scarce Resources Didn't Kill Off Easter Islanders, Study Says

Alanbritom via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Alanbritom via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0 / Alanbritom via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Imagine an alternate universe where humans are extinct and some of the scant evidence of our existence is a scattering of sterling silver pie servers. Now imagine explorers from another planet come to Earth and find these pie servers. Looking at the pie servers’ triangular shape and broad distribution, these explorers conclude that we must have used them as some kind of primitive weapon.

Ludicrous, right? Yet anthropologists say we’ve been operating under a very similar assumption about the former residents of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Their study is forthcoming in the journal Antiquity.

For a while now, historians believed that the ancient citizens of Rapa Nui essentially killed themselves off through wars over scarce resources. The evidence for these wars could be found in the thousands of triangular black glass objects, or mata’a, scattered across the island. These objects, historians said, must have been used as spear points. Why else would they be sharp and lying all over the place?

Simon Evans via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Archaeologist and study lead author Carl Lipo has a few ideas. “When you look at these things, they just don’t look like weapons at all,” he said in a press release. Lipo and his colleagues analyzed photographs of more than 400 mata’a, paying special attention to their shape. The researchers compared the shape of the mata’a with other traditional weapons from around the world, and the details simply did not match up.

An object designed for violence has to be effective on the first try. In hand-to-hand fighting, a dull or clumsy weapon is more of a liability than an asset—just imagine trying to stab someone with a pie server. Weapons from ancient societies were “…very systematic in their design,” Lipo said in the press release. “They have to do their job really well. Not doing well is risking death.”

And the mata’a? Well, they fell more on the pie-server end of the weapon spectrum. “You would cut somebody [with a mata’a], but they certainly wouldn’t be lethal in any way,” Lipo said in the press release.

Lipo and his colleagues believe the mata’a were most likely household or ritual objects for tasks like tattooing and cutting up plants. And with no “spear points” as evidence, Lipo says, the old theory of Easter Islanders killing themselves to death really doesn’t add up. The researchers say that the theory, while popular, was pretty flimsy to begin with.

“What people traditionally think about the island is being this island of catastrophe and collapse just isn’t true in a pre-historic sense," Lipo said in the press statement. "Populations were successful and lived sustainably on the island up until European contact.”

“We’ve been trying to focus on individual bits of evidence that support the collapse narrative to demonstrate that really there’s no support whatsoever for that story,” he added. “…a pillar of the broader study is the fact that this is an amazing society that really was successful.”