In his best-selling book from 2005 Collapse, Jared Diamond offered the social collapse of Easter (aka Rapa Nui), circa 1
In a new article published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers offer exciting evidence that the people of Rapa Nui continued to thrive well after 1600. The authors suggest that this justifies a rethinking of the popular story that the island was poor when Europeans arrived in 1722.
“The degree to which their cultural heritage was transferred – and is still present today through language, art and cultural practices – is quite remarkable and impressive,” co-author Robert DiNapoli, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Oregon, told Sapiens. “This degree of resilience has been overlooked because of the story of the collapse and deserves recognition.”
Easter Island is known for its huge monumental statues, called moai, built by early residents about 800 years ago. Scientists have wondered moai on Easter Island for decades, pondering on their cultural significance, as well as how a Stone Age culture managed to carve and transport statues weighing up to 92 tons. The moai were usually mounted on platforms called ahu.
Back in 2012, Carl Lipo from Binghamton University and his colleague, Terry Hunt from the University of Arizona, demonstrated that you could transport a 5-foot, 5-ton moai a few hundred meters with only 18 people and three strong ropes using a rocking motion. In 2018, Lipo proposed an exciting hypothesis for how the islanders placed red hats on top of some moai; they can weigh up to 13 tons. He suggested that residents use ropes to roll the hats up a ramp. And as we reported last year, Lipo and his team (based on quantitative spatial modeling) drew that the islanders probably chose the statues’ locations based on the availability of fresh water sources, per their 2019 paper in PLOS One.
For this latest study, Lipo and his colleagues have turned their attention to establishing a better chronology for human occupation of Rapa Nui. While it is generally agreed that people arrived in eastern Polynesia and at Rapa Nui sometime in the late 1100s or early 1200s, “we do not really know much about the timing and pace of events related to ahu construction and moai transport, “Lipo told Ars.” We generally know that this kind of construction happened sometime before the Europeans, but exactly how these events played out has been fuzzy. ”
The team used a Bayesian model-based method on existing radio carbon dates collected from previous excavations at 11 different sites with ahu. The model also integrated the order and position of the island’s distinct architecture, as well as ethnohistorical accounts, and thus quantified the beginning of the monument construction, the speed at which it occurred and when it probably ended. This allowed the researchers to test Diamond’s “collapse” hypothesis by building a more accurate timeline for when construction took place at each of the sites.
“Our results show a lack of evidence of a ‘collapse’ before contact and instead offer strong support for a new growth model of resilient societies that continued their long-term traditions despite the effects of European arrival,” the authors wrote. In addition, “Methodically, our model-based strategy for testing hypotheses about collapse of chronology can be extended to other case studies around the world where similar debates are still difficult to resolve.”
The work has met some mixed opinions from Lipo’s fellow archaeologists. “Their work contributes to the growing amount of evidence gathered over the past ten years that the earlier stories of the collapse of Easter Island are inaccurate – and need to be reiterated,” Seth Quintus, anthropologist at the University of Hawai’i, Mānoa, told Sapiens . Quintus is not involved in Lipo’s study.
UCLA archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg – also not involved in the study – expressed skepticism. “The collapse story that these authors describe is a straw man that they have set up that does not exactly reflect the actual hypothesis,” Van Tilburg told Sapiens. She believes that Diamond’s collapse hypothesis is still a viable alternative and claims that his hypothesis was not based on a single collapse event but on a series of events that led to the destruction of the social structure, which was further exacerbated by the arrival of European explorers.
Lipo acknowledges that some critics have suggested that his team cherry-pick its radiocarbon dating, which he rejects as “simply baloney and misinformed thinking.” According to Lipo, some radiocarbon samples may be biased due to “old coal” problems: that is, the samples were taken from pieces of burnt wood or coal, for example. “Some parts of the trees may be much older than others due to the fact that they grew when the tree was just starting,” he said, which could skew radio column decay results.
So he and his team filtered their hydrocarbon samples to just those they were safe related to human occupation and human-related events, meaning they analyzed a smaller subset of all available ages – not an unusual strategy. And the results for the colonization estimates are about the same as before.
Other critics have insisted that there must be a period of time preceding the earliest radio age that anyone has yet found. “This is an argument based on the lack of evidence – that is, something happened for which we will never have a record,” Lipo said. “As a researcher, our strategy has been to explain the evidence we find, which means explaining the archaeological record (and radiocarbon age) that we have available. Speculating in something that is inherently ignorant and invisible is a matter of faith rather than science. “
In addition, because of the small size of the island, Lipo says that human influence would have been “pretty much immediate.” So “unless people came to the island and hid in a single cave for centuries, we would have evidence to show their impact,” he added.
At the other end of the chronology, Lipo says his team has seen less pressure. “Others are starting to show it ahu construction, moai carving and other activities continued not only until the European arrival in 1722 but also past that time, “he said.” The whole notion that all activities related to the construction and use of monumental architecture ceased at some point in the late 17th century simply have no empirical basis. “
When it comes to Tilburg’s “straw man”, accusations, Lipo does not have it. “Calling something a ‘straw man’ hypothesis is a way of changing one’s story to say that ‘we have said it all the time,'” he said. “It’s a sensible statement and totally misleading.” He opposes Diamond’s ” Evidence “for the collapse argument was quite specific: the arrival of humans to the island as early as 700 AD, an” ecological paradise “that existed when humans arrived, massive population sizes (up to 30,000), evidence of erosion, overfishing, widespread war at group level and cannibalism.
“Our work has consisted of just examining the archaeological evidence that should be obvious to support his claims,” Lipo said. “We simply have a lack of anything at a distance as Diamond has said. Instead, we have learned that his reasoning is based on a deeply mistaken misunderstanding of the historical history of the island (especially the effects of post-European conditions) as well as poor assumptions about human behavior in general. “
Currently, fieldwork is not possible given the ongoing global pandemic. But Lipo and his colleagues plan to continue their studies of Easter sex, testing hypotheses with data generated from the record through additional fieldwork, remote analysis and artifact analysis. According to Lipo, they will expand their analyzes to focus more on explaining why the communities at Rapa Nui worked together so consistently to create the island’s spectacular architecture.
“Diamond (and others) tend to throw statue construction as just a ‘cultural’ thing that got out of control,” Lipo said. “But we haven’t found that the answer is very satisfactory. Why Rapa Nui and not anywhere else across the Pacific? Why do it in the first place, and then why keep doing it over and over again? To figure this out is important if we are will really solve the “mystery” on Easter Island. “
DOI: Journal of Archaeological Science, 2020. 10.1016 / j.jas.2020.105094 (About DOIs).