Few stone monuments are as recognisable as the maoi 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 – what some have called “ecocide”.
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.
The ‘ecocide’ narrative
The ecocide hypothesis centres on two major claims. First, that the island’s population was reduced from several tens of thousands in its heyday, to a diminutive 1,500-3,000 when Europeans first arrived in the early 18th century.
Second, that the palm trees that once covered the island were callously cut down by the population of Rapa Nui to move the statues. With no trees to anchor the soil, fertile land eroded away resulting in poor crop yields, while a lack of wood meant islanders couldn’t build canoes to access fish or move statues. This led to mutually destructive warfare and, ultimately, cannibalism.
The question of population size is one we still cannot convincingly answer. Most archaeologists agree on estimates somewhere between 4,000 and 9,000 people, although a recent study looked at likely agricultural yields and suggested the island could have supported up to 15,000.
However there is little concrete evidence of a population decline prior to the first European contact in 1722. Ethnographic reports from the early 20th century provide oral histories of warfare between competing island groups. The anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl – most famous for crossing the Pacific in a traditional Inca boat – took these reports as evidence for a huge civil war that culminated in a battle of 1680, where the majority of one of the island’s tribes was killed. Obsidian flakes or “mata’a” littering the island have been interpreted as weapon fragments testifying to this violence.
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.
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.
While the sharp edges of mata’a were ideal for cutting and scraping (a fact supported by earlier studies), their weight and asymmetry made them ineffective for inflicting deadly stabbing wounds, Lipo concludes, calling mata’a “no more lethal than any other kind of rock.”
This is not to say that life on Rapa Nui was conflict-free. “The Rapanui certainly engaged in violence—you can see all of the healed injuries on the skeletal remains—and as sharp objects, mata’a could be used in many threatening ways,” says Lipo.
But why did the islanders, who had the technological skill to erect almost a thousand 70-ton moai, fail to develop efficiently lethal weapons to battle one another?
“It’s not as if they never figured it out, that’s crazy,” Lipo says. “They chose not to.”
According to the 2012 book The Statues That Walked, written by Lipo and his colleague, University of Oregon anthropologist Terry Hunt, it simply didn’t pay to escalate conflict to levels that resulted in lethal violence on tiny, isolated Rapa Nui, a 64 square-mile island that’s 1,500 miles from its closest neighbour.
“This island was their entire universe,” Lipo explains, “and lethal violence only pays if you can do it anonymously, kill and leave, or kill everyone else. Otherwise you’ll face the consequences of killing sooner or later.”
The Rapa Nui community quickly figured this out, he theorizes, and developed ways to compete with one another that would not escalate into endless tit-for-tat massacres that would ultimately leave everyone dead.
What may have happened to the trees
A picture has emerged of a prehistoric population that was both successful and lived sustainably on the island up until European contact. It is generally agreed that Rapa Nui, once covered in large palm trees, was rapidly deforested soon after its initial colonisation around 1200 AD. Although micro-botanical evidence, such as pollen analysis, suggests the palm forest disappeared quickly, the human population may only have been partially to blame.
The earliest Polynesian colonisers brought with them another culprit, namely the Polynesian rat. It seems likely that rats ate both palm nuts and sapling trees, preventing the forests from growing back. But despite this deforestation, research on the diet of the prehistoric Rapanui found they consumed more seafood and were more sophisticated and adaptable farmers than previously thought.
What caused the population decline?
So what – if anything – happened to the native population for its numbers to dwindle and for statue carving to end? And what caused the reports of warfare and conflict in the early 20th century?
The real answer may be more sinister. Throughout the 19th century, South American slave raids took away as much as half of the native population. By 1877, the Rapanui numbered just 111. Introduced disease, destruction of property and enforced migration by European traders further decimated the natives and lead to increased conflict among those remaining. Perhaps this, instead, was the warfare the ethnohistorical accounts refer to and what ultimately stopped the statue carving.
It had been thought that South Americans made contact with Rapa Nui centuries before the Europeans, as their DNA can be detected in modern native inhabitants. A new study, however, led by paleogeneticist Lars Fehren-Schmitz, questions this timeline. Rapanui human remains were analyzed dating to before and after European contact. The study, published in the journal Current Biology, found no significant gene flow between South America and Easter Island before 1722. Instead, the considerable recent disruption to the island’s population may have impacted on modern DNA.
Perhaps, then, the takeaway from Rapa Nui should not be a story of ecocide and a Malthusian population collapse. Instead, it should be a lesson in how sparse evidence, a fixation with “mysteries”, and a collective amnesia for historic atrocities caused a sustainable and surprisingly well-adapted population to be falsely blamed for their own demise.