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2001 DECEMBER
THE MATAA SPEAR POINTS OF EASTER ISLAND



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"KIDNEY SHAPED" MATAA SPEAR POINT

EASTER ISLAND

   At least a thousand years of peaceful coexistence on Easter Island ended with the mass production of these obsidian spear points called Mataa. These crudely made points are the most commonly found surface collected artifacts discovered during the Thor Heyerdahl archaeological investigations in the 1950's. He describes the style in this picture, from hundreds recorded during their survey, as kidney shaped.

 


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OBSIDIAN QUARRY AREA

EASTER ISLAND
PICTURE CREDIT GEORGE FRISON

   Obsidian is abundant on Easter Island which is unique.  On most Polynesian islands in the Pacific it's fairly rare. It covers the ground in some places and was easy to collect for spear point making.

 


OFF SHORE ISLAND
EASTER ISLAND
PICTURE CREDIT GEORGE FRISON

   This small offshore island is made almost entirely of obsidian.

 


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MATAA SPEAR POINT
EASTER ISLAND

   The earliest reference to the Mataa as a sharp cutting weapon is by the Spanish in 1770. In 1774 British visitors identified them as sharp triangular pieces of black glassy lava hafted to spears on thin ill-shapen sticks. In 1868 an early observer named Palmer was the first to record that these artifacts were attached to wooden shafts and used as pikes for thrusting and for javelins for throwing. He noted that they were thrown underhanded and aimed mostly at the legs and arms.
   In 1883 another observer named Geiseler recorded that the tangs of the spear points were hafted to wooden shafts with bark-cloth and fibre cord. He also observed that two small wooden wedges were inserted at the sides of the tang to tighten the lashings. Another notation he made was about a skull he observed that was cut through by one of these weapons.
   The first recorded collection was purchased by a man named Thomson from another man named Salmon in 1886. Thomson divided them into nine classes according to shape. He noted that the difference in shape is not functional but is dependent on the skill of the individual maker.


MATAA SPEAR POINTS
EASTER ISLAND

   In 1919 a man named Routledge used fourteen different descriptive names to describe these points. He used such names as "tail of a fish", "backbone of a rat" and "leaf of a banana". He also writes that these were commonly found and that on one occasion 50 or 60 were found in a stone cave and at another time they found a cache of these points along with the hammerstone that was used to make them. Or as he put it "was used in the process of squeezing off the flakes". 

 


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MATAA SPEAR POINTS
EASTER ISLAND

   Only two examples of still intact Easter Island spears are know to exist. One is on the Museum fur Volkerkunde in Vienna. It has a triangular shaped obsidian point that is very well hafted to a wooden shaft that is obviously intended to have been used as a throwing spear. The other specimen is in the British Museum. It is described as having a wide crescent shaped point hafted onto a handle that is no longer than the width of the spear point itself. The end of the handle is smoothed and is not believed to have been broken. It was probably used as a tool to cut wood or bone or any other relatively soft materials. 

 


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ONE OF THE MANY CAVES ON THE ISLAND
EASTER ISLAND

   The numerous caves on Easter Island were used for several different purposes. They were used as dwellings or hiding places in times of war. Also for places to bury the dead and for caching away sacred religious objects. Some caves are decorated with petroglyphs and as previously mentioned large caches of these tanged spear points have also been found in them.

Four scrapers & adzes from Easter Island.
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FOUR EXAMPLES OF

SCRAPERS & POSSIBLE ADZES
EASTER ISLAND

   Obsidian was also used to make scrapers, drills and other tools. The sharpest cutting edge can be obtained from obsidian. But the edge is fragile and will not hold up well. The harder basalt will make longer lasting wood cutting tools and in fact most of the adzes described by William Mulloy were of either that material or andesites. The tools in this picture are made of both obsidian and the harder andesite.


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MATAA SPEAR POINTS
EASTER ISLAND

   The only standardized feature on the average Mataa is the tang or hafting area. The shape of the cutting edge seems to have followed the configuration of the flake of obsidian it was made on. What seems to have been important is to have a cutting edge that could inflict a severe flesh wound. The unretouched blade edges on newly made points would have been extremely sharp!

 

POST 1722

   More devastating events did begin to occur shortly after European contact. This contact happened at a time when the island's culture, since their discovery of the island, had reach it's lowest point. With the Europeans came disease that must have caused many deaths but the worst was the slave traders. Beginning in 1862 they took away all the healthy people and in the space of only one year they managed to reduce their culture into complete disarray, without leadership and hope. By 1900 the population fell to only 111 people.
   The missionaries were the final event that directed the people towards even yet another way of life. Although the missionaries had good intentions they were responsible for the loss of most of the wood carved "Rango-rango" tablets, and other rare sacred objects and artworks that would have allowed a better understanding of their ancient past. Today the population of Easter Island is over 2,000.
   (An interesting note: there has been some recent concern that the Rapa Nui National Park may turn over some of its land to private interests for development, for a large hotel, etc.)
   If there's a moral to the Easter Island story (and the planet Earth) it must have something to do with Clint Eastwood's famous movie quote "a man has got to know his limitations"!

"REFERENCES"

1961, Vol. I, "Archaeology of Easter Island", by Thor Heyerdahl, E. N. Ferdon, JR., W. Mulloy, A. Skjolsvold & C. S. Smith, pp. 151-153, 398-400, 482
1979, "Island At the Center of the World", by Father Sebastian Englert, pp. 30, 84, 125-126, 154.
1988, "Easter Island Mystery of the Stone Giants", by Catherine & Michel Orliac, pp. 53.
1995, "Easter Island's End", August issue of Discover Magazine, by Jared Diamond.
1996, "The Oxford Companion To Archaeology", by Brian M. Fagan, pp. 190.
George Frison, Ph.D. Department of Anthropology, University of Wyoming, personal communications and the use of his slide collection taken in the 1980's of archaeological sites around the island.

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