Why Did the Easter Island Civilization Vanish?

© Christian Wilkinson, My Shot/ National Geographic
© Christian Wilkinson, My Shot/ National Geographic

The mysterious civilization that inhabited Easter Island and left numerous giant stone monuments called moai, probably did not disappear as a result of war conflicts. Analysis of hundreds of obsidian, triangular objects (mata’a) found on the island, that were thought to be arrow or spear heads, suggests that the indigenous inhabitants were not very hostile towards other cultures.

“You can always use something as a spear,” says Carl Lipo, professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, Great Britain. “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.”

Easter Island is one of the most mysterious places on Earth. Two thousand years ago a civilization of Polynesians left behind numerous stone monuments – moai, which, according to scholars, represent apotheosized figures of ancestors and relatives of the ancient islanders.

This civilization disappeared from the face of Earth way before Europeans arrived on the island. Until now, the two accepted theories for their demise were scarcity of resources and wars between different tribes.

Most of the remains of the aboriginal culture of Easter Island were destroyed in the middle of the 19th century when the island was practically flooded by slave traders. By studying more than 400 mata’a, Lipo and his colleagues found that the main reason for the mysterious vanishing of the civilization was not war.


Actually, mata’a were not weapons, because they would have been quite ineffective as such. Even the most primitive stone tools would have been deadlier, and Lipo’s team showed that mata’a were not suited for warfare usage.

According to the scientists at Binghamton University, mata’a were used as farming tools or nibs for creating body art. This fits well into the theory because such obsidian tools were found all across the island.

Ancient inhabitants of Easter Island were not war-oriented people and the reasons for their demise might be hiding somewhere else. Perhaps lack of resources and arrival of the first Europeans might have exacerbated the situation.