For many years archaeologists have focused the attention of their research on the 887 monolithic statues sprouting our from the green Pacific island.
Researchers agreed the heads were chiseled out of local stone by a powerful Polynesian civilisation between seven and five centuries ago.
But whatever happened to the people who carved the stone heads, dubbed moai, with nothing more than primitive tools?
With a lot of the research focusing on the statues and their purpose, the general consensus was the island’s inhabitants led to their own demise through infighting and over-exploitation of the island’s resources.
That was until a team of researchers from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural history peeled back some of the layers of mystery surrounding Easter Island.
A recently published article in the Journal of Pacific Technology claims to have found evidence of a complex and sophisticated society built on mutual collaboration and communication.
The paper’s authors argued a civilisation built on these principles would not have vanished as easily from the pages of history as the people of Easter Island appear to have done.
Laure Dussubieux, study co-author and scientist at the Field Museum, said: “For a long time, people wondered about the culture behind these very important statues.
Easter Island: A team of researchers claim the Rapa Nui civilisation did not collapse
“This study shows how people were interacting, it’s helping to revise history.”
By analysing the chemical composition of around 1,600 tools used to carve the ominous stone heads the researchers discovered a highly collaborative civilisation.
Study lead author Dale Simpson Jr, University of Queensland, argued the idea the Eastern Island inhabitants collapsed through intense competition may have been “overstated”.
The expert said: “To me, the stone carving industry is solid evidence that there was cooperation among families and craft groups.”
The Easter Island and its people, known as Rapa Nui in the local Polynesian language, saw the first inhabitants land on its shores about 900 years ago.
For a long time, people wondered about the culture behind these very important statues
Local legends stipulate the island was settled by the Polynesian chief Hotu Matu’a who took two canoes to the uninhabited volcanic island, some 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile.
Archaeologists believe the aboriginal Polynesians quickly established a growing society numbering in the thousands and raised the moai in the process.
The Easter Island heads are understood to represent Rapa Nui ancestors and their number and size tell Dr Simpson Jr the Rapa Nui was a complex society.
He said: “Ancient Rapa Nui had chiefs, priests, and guilds of workers who fished, farmed and made the moai.
Easter Island: The stone statues were erected between seven and five centuries ago
“There was a certain level of sociopolitical organisation that was needed to carve almost a thousand statues.”
The last years of the Rapa Nui are fraught with stories of bloody infighting and brutal cannibalism as the Pacific islanders drove the island to the brink of environmental collapse.
Some researchers believe the Rapa Nui civilisation was sent down on a death spiral once the last tree was cut down for resources and the people suffered a shortage of livestock.
Today, the Easter Island is barren landscape without a single tree – testament to the ecological collapse it underwent in the past.
Easter Island: The new study found a well connected and cooperative society
The theory was popularised in 2005 by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.
But the idea was challenged in 2011 by researchers from California State University and the University of Hawaii who sainted argued the Rapa Nui were wiped out by epidemics spread by European explorers by the 19th century.
The anthropologists agreed the Polynesians figured out methods of cultivating crops to work around the deforestation without having to resort to cannibalism and infighting.
Dr Simpson and his team have now asserted the Rapa Nui did not collapse but instead survived years of colonial oppression and slavery, with thousands of the island’s native people still alive today.
He said: “There’s so much mystery around Easter Island, because it’s so isolated, but on the island, people were, and still are, interacting in huge amounts.”