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Easter Island: Ancient Civilization Not Destroyed By War, Study Confirms

Feb 19, 2016 01:00 PM EST
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Shards of glass scattered across Easter Island, originally thought to be used as speared warfare weapons, are no more than your average farming tools, according to a new study from Binghamton University.

As the centuries-old story goes, an ancient civilization on Rapa Nui -- the traditional name of Easter Island, which is located some 2,300 miles west of Chile -- was once a thriving population between AD 700 and 1200: There were skilled farms and engineers of ginormous stone statues called moai. However, as the population grew, islanders suffered from dwindling food sources. It was believed that the shards of glass, also known as mata'a, found across the island represented massive warfare among the island's early inhabitants, which would later be tied to the civilization's demise.

In the latest study led by anthropology professor Carl Lipo, researchers took a closer look at these jagged, triangular artifacts comprised of obsidian -- a glittering, black volcanic rock. In total, Lipo and his team analyzed the shape variability of more than 400 mata'a collected from the island.

"We found that when you look at the shape of these things, they just don't look like weapons at all," Lipo said 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."

Instead, researchers suggest the mata's blades are just simple tools. Their findings also prove that, rather than resorting to combat when met with limited resources, the island's early inhabits fell prey to European settlers and disease.

"You can always use something as a spear. Anything that you have can be a weapon. But under the conditions of warfare, weapons are going to have performance characteristics. And they're going to be very carefully fashioned for that purpose because it matters...You would cut somebody [with a mata'a], but they certainly wouldn't be lethal in any way," Lipo added.

Their study was recently published in the journal Antiquity.

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