Few stone monuments are as recognizable as the moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and few cautionary tales are as widely repeated as the sorry fate of the Polynesian society that crafted the monumental stone sentinels.
The drive to create these enigmatic and enormous monuments resulted in widespread deforestation, the story goes, which in turn led to systematic warfare over increasingly scarce resources and, ultimately, complete societal and economic collapse before the arrival of the first Europeans in 1722.
But now the most common—and most unremarkable—artifacts on the island are shifting the debate about whether the Rapanui virtually wiped themselves out in a frenzy of organized violence before European contact.
By 1877, only 110 Rapanui were alive on the island, and it was around this time that European ethnographers began to collect their oral histories about the earlier wars that ravaged their community. Since then, researchers have suggested that the thousands of small, three-sided, stemmed obsidian tools found across the island were the weapons employed in these battles. (Watch the moai “walk.”)
In his 2005 book Collapse, former National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Jared Diamond characterizes the tools, known as mata’a, as leftovers “from an epidemic of civil war.” The humble mata’a are even touted as an example of “stone-age weapons innovation” in a publication by the U.S. government’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
There’s no organized violence and no mass killing.
However, a new study provides evidence that mata’a could not have been used as lethal weapons for systemic violence. This adds to a growing argument among Rapa Nui scholars that the warfare described in later accounts actually never happened, and that while the islanders certainly suffered from the effects of deforestation and environmental degradation, the only “collapse” occurred following contact with outsiders, who brought disease and slavery to the Rapanui.
Furthermore, the authors of the study argue that making the mata’a inefficient as killing tools was a deliberate decision by the isolated island community, which quickly realized that lethal internal battles would eventually leave everyone dead.
An analysis of obsidian tools known as mata’a shows that they were multipurpose tools and not systematically manufactured for warfare.
“No more lethal than any other kind of rock”
A research team led by National Geographic grantee Carl Lipo of Binghamton University analyzed more than 400 Rapa Nui mata’a to see if there are any consistent patterns in shape and size that can suggest a particular function for the blades — say, a long, narrow, pointed form that can effectively penetrate flesh and pierce organs.
While the mata’a ranged from 2.4 to 3.9 inches (six to ten centimeters) in length and width, the shapes varied so continuously that they were unable to identify any category of mata’a with a consistent form that would indicate design for a specific purpose. Rather, the vast variety of shapes indicate that mata’a most likely served as a multipurpose tool for all aspects of daily life on the island, including food cultivation and processing.
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