Alanbritom via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Alanbritom via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

War for Scarce Resources Didn't Kill Off Easter Islanders, Study Says

Alanbritom via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Alanbritom via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Imagine an alternate universe where humans are extinct and some of the scant evidence of our existence is a scattering of sterling silver pie servers. Now imagine explorers from another planet come to Earth and find these pie servers. Looking at the pie servers’ triangular shape and broad distribution, these explorers conclude that we must have used them as some kind of primitive weapon.

Ludicrous, right? Yet anthropologists say we’ve been operating under a very similar assumption about the former residents of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Their study is forthcoming in the journal Antiquity.

For a while now, historians believed that the ancient citizens of Rapa Nui essentially killed themselves off through wars over scarce resources. The evidence for these wars could be found in the thousands of triangular black glass objects, or mata’a, scattered across the island. These objects, historians said, must have been used as spear points. Why else would they be sharp and lying all over the place?

Simon Evans via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Archaeologist and study lead author Carl Lipo has a few ideas. “When you look at these things, they just don’t look like weapons at all,” he said in a press release. Lipo and his colleagues analyzed photographs of more than 400 mata’a, paying special attention to their shape. The researchers compared the shape of the mata’a with other traditional weapons from around the world, and the details simply did not match up.

An object designed for violence has to be effective on the first try. In hand-to-hand fighting, a dull or clumsy weapon is more of a liability than an assetjust imagine trying to stab someone with a pie server. Weapons from ancient societies were “…very systematic in their design,” Lipo said in the press release. “They have to do their job really well. Not doing well is risking death.”

And the mata’a? Well, they fell more on the pie-server end of the weapon spectrum. “You would cut somebody [with a mata’a], but they certainly wouldn’t be lethal in any way,” Lipo said in the press release.

Lipo and his colleagues believe the mata’a were most likely household or ritual objects for tasks like tattooing and cutting up plants. And with no “spear points” as evidence, Lipo says, the old theory of Easter Islanders killing themselves to death really doesn’t add up. The researchers say that the theory, while popular, was pretty flimsy to begin with.

“What people traditionally think about the island is being this island of catastrophe and collapse just isn’t true in a pre-historic sense," Lipo said in the press statement. "Populations were successful and lived sustainably on the island up until European contact.”

“We’ve been trying to focus on individual bits of evidence that support the collapse narrative to demonstrate that really there’s no support whatsoever for that story,” he added. “…a pillar of the broader study is the fact that this is an amazing society that really was successful.”

Mark Golitko
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
6000-Year-Old Skull Might Belong to World's Oldest Tsunami Victim
Scientists speak to residents in Aitape.
Scientists speak to residents in Aitape.
Mark Golitko

Tsunamis and other natural disasters have taken a deadly toll on human populations for millennia, and now we may have the oldest example of that truth yet. An international team of anthropologists and environmental researchers recently analyzed a cracked skull that belonged to a person who likely died in a tsunami some 6000 years ago. They detail their find in a new study published in PLOS One.

The partial skull in question, known as the Aitape skull, was found in Papua New Guinea in 1929 during a geological survey by an Australian scientist named Paul Hossfield. It has since been dated to the mid-Holocene epoch, or around 6000 years ago.

For the current study, the scientists returned to the site of the 1929 discovery to sample and analyze the sediment there to find out more about what might have killed the person millennia ago. They had only Hossfield's basic field descriptions to go on, but University of Notre Dame anthropologist Mark Golitko, one of the study’s authors, says that based on those descriptions, they think they were able to sample within 100 yards or so of the skull's original location.

The top of a brown cracked skull against a pink background
Arthur Durband

Based on the grain size, chemical signature, and marine microalgae found within the sediment samples, they were able to determine that around the time that the skull was buried, the area was inundated with water, probably from a tsunami. At that time, the site, located near the present-day town of Aitape, would have been just along the shoreline. Aitape was also the site of a devastating tsunami in 1998, and the Holocene sediments resembled the ones associated with that disaster.

It's possible that the skull was buried before the tsunami hit, and the grave was ripped apart by the waters and the rest of the bones scattered. However, during the powerful 1998 tsunami that killed more than 2100 people in Papua New Guinea, bodies buried in modern cemeteries were not uprooted even as the sediment above them washed away, making it more likely that the ancient skull belonged to someone killed in the disaster.

The new analysis has "made us realize that human populations in this area have been affected by these massive inundations for thousands of years," study co-author James Goff of the University of New South Wales said in a press statement. "Given the evidence we have in hand, we are more convinced than before that this person was either violently killed by a tsunami, or had their grave ripped open by one."

Field Museum anthropologist John Terrell, another co-author of the study, said, "If we are right about how this person had died thousands of years ago, we have dramatic proof that living by the sea isn't always a life of beautiful golden sunsets and great surfing conditions."

6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.


Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.


Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.


Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)


Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.


Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.


In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell


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