Discovery of Ancient Tools Carves Portrait of Easter Island Life

The moai of Easter Island.

(CN) – The stoic stone faces of Easter Island may tell the story of a once complex society where guild workers fished, farmed, shared resources and carved the giant statues with volcanic stone, according to a new study published Monday.

About 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile, Easter Island’s first Polynesian settlers arrived about 900 years ago and eventually formed a complex society, according to researchers.

The stone faces of Easter Island represent ancestors of the first people to arrive on the island, the Rapa Nui. The statues number in the thousands and have stone torsos underground. The largest stands 70 feet tall.

The statues, or moai, were carved from tools made of basalt, volcanic stone found in an island quarry, according to Jo Anne Van Tilburg of Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and one of the study’s authors.

Researchers studied 21 of about 1,600 tools recovered in excavations from four statue quarries on Easter Island and conducted a chemical analysis on the tools to see what elements made up the samples and if there were any similarities between the tools found at different sites.

A grayish rock, basalt samples might look similar to the naked eye, but through chemical analysis researchers were able to determine that many of the tools were made from one quarry rock.

Researchers believe this shows the stone carvers preferred one volcanic stone for their tools and is evidence of a “stone carving industry,” according to University of Queensland archaeologist Dale Simpson Jr. Simpson said this is an example of cooperation between families and craft groups.

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

Simpson noted the findings contradict previously held theories that early island populations warred with each other after running out of resources. The society was later destroyed by colonists and slavery, according to the study. But the Rapa Nui culture continues as descendants are still alive.

Van Tilburg cautions that the results of this study are not definitive and offers a caveat that the use of one quarry to produce a handful of tools the researchers examined might support a view of craft specialization based on information exchange, but how far that interaction went remains up for debate.

“It may also have been coercive in some way. Human behavior is complex,” Van Tilburg said.

“This study encourages further mapping and stone sourcing, and our excavations continue to shed new light on moai carving.”

The study was published Monday in the Journal of Pacific Archaeology.


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