Tools of Ancient Easter Islanders Hint at Sophisticated Society

by johnsmith

By analyzing the chemical makeup of toki, tools that were used by Easter Island’s inhabitants to create the giant moai statues, Field Museum researcher Laure Dussubieux and colleagues found evidence of a very complex society where the people shared information and collaborated.

Ancient Easter Islanders. Image credit: © Santiago Caruso.

Ancient Easter Islanders. Image credit: © Santiago Caruso.

“For a long time, people wondered about the culture behind these very important statues. Our study shows how people were interacting, it’s helping to revise the theory,” Dr. Dussubieux said.

“The idea of competition and collapse on Easter Island might be overstated. To me, the stone carving industry is solid evidence that there was cooperation among families and craft groups,” said University of Queensland archaeologist Dale Simpson, Jr.

To better understand the society that fabricated the giant statues, the researchers took a detailed look at twenty one of about 1,600 toki made of basalt that had been recovered in the recent excavations of four statues in the inner region of the quarry Rano Raraku. About half of the tools recovered were fragments that suggested how they were used.

For the team, the goal was to gain a better understanding of how tool makers and statue carvers may have interacted, thus gaining insight into how the statue production industry functioned.

“We wanted to figure out where the raw materials used to manufacture the artifacts came from. We wanted to know if people were taking material from close to where they lived,” Dr. Dussubieux said.

There are at least three different sources on the island that Easter Islanders used for material to make their stone tools. The basalt quarries cover 12,000 m2, an area the size of two football fields.

And those different quarries, the tools that came from them, and the movement between geological locations and archaeological sites shed light on the prehistoric society.

The archaeologists used a laser to cut off tiny pieces of stone from the toki and then used a mass spectrometer to analyze the amounts of different chemical elements present in the samples.

The results pointed to a society that they believe involved a fair amount of collaboration.

“The majority of the toki came from one quarry complex — once the people found the quarry they liked, they stayed with it,” Simpson said.

“For everyone to be using one type of stone, I believe they had to collaborate. That’s why they were so successful — they were working together.”

“This level of large-scale cooperation contradicts the popular narrative that Easter Island’s inhabitants ran out of resources and warred themselves into extinction. There’s so much mystery around Easter Island, because it’s so isolated, but on the island, people were, and still are, interacting in huge amounts.”

“While the society was later decimated by colonists and slavery, Rapa Nui culture has persisted. There are thousands of Rapa Nui people alive today — the society isn’t gone.”

The findings appear in the Journal of Pacific Archaeology.


Dale Fredrick Simpson Jr. et al. 2018. Geochemical and radiometric analyses of archaeological remains from Easter Island’s moai (statue) quarry reveal prehistoric timing, provenance, and use of fine-grain basaltic resources. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 9 (2): 12-34

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