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New Evidence Finds That Easter Island Wasn’t Destroyed by War After All

Did islanders really experience a catastrophic “collapse” of their own making?

Did the prehistoric civilization of Easter Island really "collapse"? (Michael Nolan/robertharding/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Famous for its enigmatic statues and far-flung location, Easter Island, and the mystery around its population "collapse," has confounded researchers since Captain Cook and his crew visited it in 1774.

It might be possible to cross one theory—that infighting destroyed the island’s Rapa Nui population—off the list. In a new paper published in the journal Antiquity, lead researcher Carl Lipo and colleagues suggest that artifacts originally thought to be spear points were more likely intended to be used as general purpose tools for ritual and domestic tasks.

The paper, "Weapons of war? Rapa Nui mata'a 1 morphometric analyses," casts doubt on one of the dominant theories about Easter Island. Scholars had assumed that a collapse had occurred on the island, but the anthropologists state that the theory is likely a construct of European explorers and not one that really reflects the island’s reality. Speculation about collapse “is really a late European interpretation of the record, not an actual archaeological event,” the team writes in a press release.

Many scholars believe a collapse had occurred, but warfare was just one of many theories. Everything from rats to deforestation has been blamed for the supposed decline of Easter Island’s population. Others claim that far from self-destructing, the Rapa Nui people were victims of a genocide.

Lipo’s paper isn’t the only recent insight into life on Easter Island. Another paper published in the journal PNAS posits that the prehistoric population of the island didn’t abandon the entire island before making contact with Europeans. Rather, say researchers, the islanders abandoned only very dry and very wet areas.

“This analysis demonstrates that the concept of ‘collapse’ is a misleading characterization of prehistoric human population dynamics,” they conclude. Both discoveries point to the need for new ways to understand the disappearance of prehistoric populations—and suggest that the mysteries of Easter Island will fascinate researchers for years to come.

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