Elite Control and Exchange of Archaeological Stone on Rapa Nui

by Dale F. Simpson Jr.  –  Arqueólogo / Archaeologist

University of Queensland, School of Social Science (Archaeology); College of DuPage (Anthropology);

Manu Iri Heritage Guardians; Ka’Ara Environmental Conscience.



In the early stages of my Ph.D. fieldwork about Rapa Nui’s ancient basalt sources, quarries, workshops and artifacts, I portrayed the prehistoric Rapanui as ancient geologists and prolific miners, who developed multiple reduction sequences to create fine-grain basalt tools and feature-stones from five areas: Pu Tokitoki, Ava o’Kiri, Rano Kau, Vai Atare, and the south coast mines found between Hanga Poukura and Hanga Hahave (Moe Varua, May 2015). I suggested that the demarcation of fine-grain basalt quarries and sources with Make-Make petroglyphs was an attempt by chiefly and elite retainers to oversee and control important basalt sources, and conceivably limit the access and use of these important lithic (stone) quarries. Since this initial report, I have furthered my research and have arrived to some preliminary conclusions about sociopolitical interaction of the prehistoric Rapanui culture. 

My research is based on the geochemical fact that every lava flow on Rapa Nui is like a finger, with its own “rock D.N.A.” and elemental autograph; therefore, each artifact made from a specific quarry can be identified from the flow’s unique geochemical fingerprint. From here, we can trace the movement of material – from geological sources to archaeological sites – to identify if certain social groups were using certain stone, controlling certain quarries, and/or extracting specific material for specific tools. With this information, we can evaluate and hopefully corroborate and/or disprove previous interpretations of the island’s prehistoric sociopolitical organization and territoriality. Geochemical results suggest:

1) Basalt resources from Rano Kau and Vai Atarewere hardly, if ever used for tool manufacture. Instead, stone sources and quarries from these areas were utilized to extract keho (flat basaltic laminates) used for house construction in Orongo. Moreover, basalt used to make lithic tools found in the Vai Atare region were not even sourced locally, but were provenanced to the southern coast mines.

2) There still exist basalt quarries and sources that our current study did not locate. This highlights the fact that while much of Rapa Nui’s megalithic landscape is well-known and studied, there is much of the island’s archaeological heritage that is still unknown, especially with regards to basalt material culture, urging further investigation and analyses.
3) Pu Tokitoki and the southern coast mines between Hanga Poukura and Hanga Hahave were two of the most important centers for fine-grain tool basalt on Rapa Nui. In turn, they have unique patterns of their prehistoric use. For instance, our evidence shows how mata (clan) centers such as ‘Anakena and Tongariki depended on the numerous sources and quarries in the Pu Tokitoki and Ava o’Kiri regions. However, the most important Miru clan found at Hanga Rau (‘Anakena – Ahu Nau Nau),also had material that was sourced to the southern coast mines. This patterns suggests that the Miru had access to both of the best sources of fine-grain basalt on Rapa Nui. On the other hand, western and southern clans depended greatly on the southern coast mines for their basalt raw material, but with Tahai also having access to Pu Tokitoki. These patterns illustrate movement of stone between mata kainga (clan territories) and even between Ko Tu’u Aro Ko Te Mati Nui (high status northern clans) and Ko Tu’u Hotu Iti Ko Te Mata Iti (low status southern clans) confederations.
My preliminary conclusion is that the acquisition, use, and archaeological deposition of basalt material follows patterns of elite control; with the two best sources for basalt being used by the most ranking members of the prehistoric Rapanui culture (associated with the ahumoai complex). This pattern of elite control over resources has been well documented on Rapa Nui for decades, especially with regard to lithics. For example, distributional studies suggest that obsidian from four quarries was differentially utilized based on glass quality and geological location. This includes how desirable materials flowed through the sociopolitical economy and were preferentially retained by elite members in the process, while those with lesser rank gained access to stone material via down-the-line exchange. Elite Rapanui (ariki and tangata honui)monitored and controlled the flow of high quality Orito / Motu Iti obsidian, using this superior obsidian at ahu and moai ceremonial centres along the island’s coast and around elite architecture (e.g. hare paenga). Meanwhile, lesser grade Rano Kau obsidian (small size, friable with more inclusions) was utilized in inland areas, arguably distributed through family networks (umanga),where lesser status Rapanui lived, farmed, and worked on corporate strategies for subsistence production and coastal monumental constructions.

A remaining question however, is which were the social, political, and economic mechanisms that facilitated this movement of basalt? Was it a form of exchange like bartering between elite, where each mata produced resources afforded in their mata kainga? Some exchanging, for example, horticultural crops for stone, plant and animals resources for stone, and/or people and information for stone. Was there a system of so-called trade between mata and even within a single mata kainga? These are questions I am still very much interested in, and future analysis and publications will assist in illustrating the sociopolitical economic complexity of the prehistoric Rapanui culture. (“Rapa Nui Geochemical Project” –Twitter & Facebook: @RNgeochemPHD).