Easter Island moai

[Image above] The imposing moai statues of Easter Island. Credit: Arian Zwegers; Flickr CC BY 2.0

Where in the world can you find an exotic island where you could go horseback riding, cave snorkeling, zip-lining, hiking, and scuba diving—oh, and see some really cool statues?

Well, Easter Island, of course!

If you’re unfamiliar with Easter Island, located 2,300 miles west of South America, its claim to fame is the giant head and bust statues carved from stone, called moai, scattered around the island. The moai, located primarily around the coast, were carved by early inhabitants of the island between the 13th and 16th centuries.

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, as it was initially called by the natives who founded the island nearly 900 years ago, is home to more than 800 of these moai, located all around the over 63 square-mile island’s coastal areas.

The massive statues stand up to 33 feet tall and weigh a little over 90 tons. Some of them even sport red hats, or pukaos, as the natives called them. And if you dig deep enough, those heads and busts actually have full bodies attached to them.

There is even recent controversy surrounding one of these massive statues that currently resides in a British museum.

Several mysteries exist regarding the circumstances in which early settlers arrived on the island, how they cohabitated, the purpose of those giant statues, how they were created, and especially how they moved the moai around the island to their final resting places.

Historians have debated about the decline of Rapa Nui’s civilization, including the rat theory posited by archaeologists. In the 2005 book “Collapse,” author Jared Diamond suggests that different tribes competed for resources while building the moai, and eventually turned to cannibalism as a result of exhausting the island’s resources.

Archaeology tells a story

A new study disputes the theory that islanders competed with each other for resources.

In earlier research, archaeologists claimed that Rapa Nui inhabitants used different quarries for each type of stone that was used in building the moai, according to a LiveScience article. But archaeologist and College of DuPage faculty instructor Dale Simpson Jr., who studied the basalt stone tools used to create the moai, found that the basalt used to make the tools was sourced from one quarry—even though there were other quarries available to the islanders.

“Each quarry is like a finger and each stone you pull from it is going to have a fingerprint,” Simpson explains in the LiveScience article. Learning that the basalt they used to make their tools originated from the same quarry, Simpson says that communal access to the same quarry indicates everyone appeared to have been working together, not against each other.

The archaeologists recovered nearly 1,600 stone tools, called toki, using chemical and mass spectrometry to learn “where the raw materials used to manufacture the artifacts came from,” study co-author and field museum scientist Laure Dussubieux explains in a CNN article. “We wanted to know if people were taking material from close to where they lived.”

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

UCLA archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who coauthored the study, says it’s too early to tell if the Rapa Nui people actually collaborated with each other, saying in the LiveScience article that further research is needed.

Future research may solve more of the mysteries of this interesting society and their impressive statues.

The paper, published in the Journal of Pacific Archaeology, is “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” 9(2), pp. 12-34.

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