Academic journal article Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific

Early Settlement of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Academic journal article Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific

Early Settlement of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Article excerpt

RAPA NUI, THE SMALL REMOTE ISLAND that constitutes the easternmost corner of the Polynesian triangle, was found and populated long before the Europeans "discovered" this part of the world in 1722. The long-standing questions concerning this remarkable island are: who were the first to populate the island, at what time was it populated, and did the Rapa Nui population and development on the island result from a single voyage? Over the years there has been much discussion, speculation, and new scientific results concerning these questions. This has resulted in several conferences and numerous scientific and popular papers and monographs. The aim of this paper is to present the contemporary views on these issues, drawn from the results of the last 45 years of archaeological research on the island (Fig. 1), and to describe recent fieldwork that Martinsson-Wallin completed on Rapa Nui.


Results from the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Rapa Nui in 1955-1956 suggest that the island was populated as early as c. A.D. 400 (Heyerdahl and Ferdon 1961: 395). This conclusion was drawn from a single radiocarbon date. This dated carbon sample (K-502) was found in association with the so-called Poike ditch on the east side of the island. The sample derived from a carbon concentration on the natural surface, which had been covered by soil when the ditch was dug. The investigator writes the following:

   There is no evidence to indicate that the fire from which the carbon was
   derived actually burned at the spot where the charcoal occurred, but it is
   clear that it was on the surface of the ground at the time the first loads
   of earth were carried out of the ditch and deposited over it. (Smith 1961:

This sample is dated to 1570 [+ or -] 100 B.P. and it is so far the earliest date from an excavated site on the island. Using a calibration program, this date is estimated to be cal A.D. 320-670 at the 95 percent confidence interval. (This date and the following A.D. dates were calibrated using the computer program Oxcal. v.2.18 at two sigmas.)

Two worked obsidian pieces, five obsidian chips, three sling stones, a basalt sinker or anchor, and three adzes were found during the excavation of the ditch, but none of them was found in direct association with the early dated carbon sample. The butt end of a chipped adz with triangular cross section (type 2-A) and a worked piece of obsidian, probably a side scraper, were found in the mound that covered the early dated carbon sample. Another carbon sample (K-501) from the middle section of the ditch is dated to 280 [+ or -] 100 B.P. This corresponds to a date of cal A.D. 1450-1890, which is more congruent with the oral traditions concerning the use of the ditch during the war between the "long ears" and "short ears" (Englert 1974:98). A long-standing idea is that the ditch actually, was used in this war between the two groups of people on Rapa Nui. However, the investigator of the ditch, Carlyle Smith, has presented a new idea suggesting that it may have been used for irrigation and as earth ovens for the workers in the quarries of Rano Raraku (Smith 1990). In 1991, Patricia Vargas of the University of Chile carried out a new excavation of the ditch, but so far no dates or other results have been published from this excavation (Van Tilburg 1994:78).

During the past 45 years, there have been several archaeological excavations on the island that have broadened knowledge about its prehistoric society. To date, well over 100 [sup.14]C dates and many more obsidian hydration dates have been performed on samples of prehistoric relevance (Tables 1-3). Among these dated samples, there are only three that date prior to or near A.D. 400. Investigators have rejected two of these early dates. The third date derives from the Poike ditch, which has been discussed above. For the period A.D. 400-800, there are four dated samples that may fall into this range. …

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