The indigenous society of the Polynesian island Rapa Nui -- popularly known as Easter Island -- did not collapse prior to European contact, and continued to build their iconic 'moai' statues for much longer than previously believed, according to a study.
The study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, noted that the islanders built and maintained massive stone platforms stacked with megalithic statues for cultural rituals like burial and cremation for at least 150 years after 1600.
According to the researchers, including those from the University of Oregon in the US, this contradicts the widely held belief that monument construction by the Rapa Nui people stopped around 1600 after a major societal collapse.
"The general thinking has been that the society that Europeans saw when they first showed up was one that had collapsed. Our conclusion is that monument-building and investment were still important parts of their lives when these visitors arrived," said Robert J. DiNapoli, a co-author of the study from the University of Oregon.
In the study, the researchers assessed 11 sites in the island -- a Chilean territory located about 3,000 kilometres from South America, and 2,000 kilometres from any other inhabited island.
They examined the necessary sequence of construction followed by the islanders which likely began with building a central platform, and then adding different structures and statues.
DiNapoli and his team assessed chemical traces of the monuments, the relative architectural layers, and sociocultural historic accounts of the island to quantify the onset, rate, and end of construction activity as a means of testing the collapse hypothesis.
"Archaeologists assign ages to the archaeological record by getting what are known as radiocarbon dates," said study co-author Carl Lipo, an anthropologist at Binghamton University in the UK.
"These dates represent the amount of time since some organisms died. Assembling groups of these dates together to look at patterns requires some sophisticated statistical analyses that have only recently been available to archaeologists," Lipo said.
From their analysis, the researchers said construction of some of the monolithic statues may have began soon after colonisation, and increased rapidly, sometime between the early-14th and mid-15th centuries, with a steady rate of construction events continuing beyond European contact in 1722.
"What we found is that once people started to build monuments shortly after arrival to the island, they continued this construction well into the period after Europeans arrived," Lipo said.
"This would not have been the case had there been some pre-contact "collapse" -- indeed, we should have seen all construction stop well before 1722. The lack of such a pattern supports our claims and directly falsifies those who continue to support the 'collapse' account," he added.
Based on the evidence found, the researchers also believe that when the Europeans arrived on the island, tragic events due to disease, murder, slave raiding, and other conflicts may have occurred.
"These events are entirely extrinsic to the islanders and have, undoubtedly, devastating effects. Yet, the Rapa Nui people -- following practices that provided them great stability and success over hundreds of years -- continued their traditions in the face of tremendous odds," Lipo said.
"The degree to which their cultural heritage was passed on -- and is still present today through language, arts and cultural practices -- is quite notable and impressive. I think this degree of resilience has been overlooked due to the "collapse" narrative, and deserves recognition," he added.
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