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Easter Island Culture Wasn't Destroyed by Warfare, as Previously Thought

First Posted: Feb 16, 2016 10:18 AM EST

Researchers have learned a bit more about the people of Easter Island. It turns out that the island's culture wasn't destroyed by warfare, as had been previously suspected.

The traditional story for Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, holds that before the Europeans arrived, the people of the island ran out of resources. This resulted in massive in-fighting which eventually led to their collapse. One of the pieces of evidence used to support this theory is the thousands of obsidian, triangular objects found on the island. Because of their large numbers and because they're made of sharp glass, researchers have long thought that these "mata'a" were the weapons of war that the ancient inhabitants of the island once used.

However, this may not be the case. In this latest study, researchers analyzed the shape variability of a photo set of 400-plus mata'a collected from the island using a technique known as morphometrics. This allowed the researchers to characterize the shapes in a quantitative manner. In the end, the scientists found that the mata'a couldn't have been used in warfare, since they would have made poor weapons.

"We found that when you look at the shape of these things, they just don't look like weapons at all," said Carl Lipo, one of the researchers, in a news release. "When you can compare them to European weapons or weapons found anywhere around the world when there are actually objects used for warfare, they're very systematic in their shape. They have to do their job really well. Not doing well is risking death."

In fact, the researchers suggest that the ancient civilization never experienced this warfare. Instead, the mata'a may have been used in ritual tasks like tattooing or domestic activities like plant processing.

The findings are published in the journal Antiquity.

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