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What’s behind the mystery of Easter Island’s statues?

Credit: Pixabay.

Located smack in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is one of the most enigmatic places in the world. Even to this day, no one is sure how the first humans on the island managed to paddle at least 3,600 kilometers – the shortest distance from mainland South America. But the most mysterious feature of Easter Island is the nearly 1,000 monolithic statues that dot its surface.  

We still don’t know how exactly the islanders moved the human-head-on-torso statues, known as “moai” in the native language. Why the early Easter islands undertook this colossal effort deep in their isolation is also a mystery.

Unfortunately, the natives did not keep a written record and the oral history is scant. But recent research is starting to fit at least some of the pieces into this puzzle, providing clues as to the purpose and significance of these stone giants that have stirred the public’s imagination for so long.

A most intriguing island and people

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is known by the indigenous people, is truly a unique place. Although Pacific islands conjure the image of a tropical paradise, the triangular Easter Island is a very rugged landscape, lacking coral reefs and idyllic beaches. Geologically speaking, Easter Island is an amalgamation of three volcanoes that erupted sometime around 780,000 to 110,000 years ago, so it’s an extremely young island. It lies near the western end of a 2,500-kilometer-long chain of underwater volcanoes called the Easter Seamount Chain that resembles the classic Hawaiian hot spot track.

The original colonizers of the island are thought to have voyaged 2,000 kilometers from southeastern Polynesia in open canoes, or as far as 3,600 kilometers from mainland Chile. The most recent archeological evidence suggests colonization didn’t occur until about 1200 C.E. From that time until Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen first spied it on Easter Day 1722 – hence the island’s name – the people of Easter Island lived in absolute isolation from the outside world. No one from Easter Island sailed back to the mainland, nor did anyone from the mainland come to visit.

Once these people arrived at the island, that was it. They were stuck there and had to work with the limited resources they had at their disposal — and it wasn’t much.  The volcanic material meant much of the soil was unusable for agriculture, but the natives did manage to grow yams, sweet potatoes, bottle gourds, sugar cane, taro, and bananas.

Intriguingly, although the island is tiny, which at 164 square kilometers is slightly smaller than Washington D.C., people were segregated into multiple clans that maintained their distinct cultures. Archeological evidence shows stylistically distinct artifacts in communities only 500 meters apart, while DNA and isotope analyses of the natives’ remains also showed that they didn’t stray too far from their homes, despite the small population size.

Speaking of which, researchers disagree about the size of the island’s population. Some estimate the population peaked at about 15,000, before it crashed to just a few thousand prior to European contact. Most estimates, however, hover at around 3,000 by 1350 C.E., and remained more or less stable until Roggeveen spotted the island, after which the population started decreasing as slavery and mass deportation followed shortly thereafter.

But what seems certain is that the Easter Island civilization was in decline well before Europeans first set foot on its shores. Easter Island used to be covered by palm trees for 30,000 years, as many as 16 million of them, some towering 30 meters high — but it is largely treeless today. Early settlers burned down woods to open spaces for farming and began to rapidly increase in population. Besides unsustainable deforestation, there is evidence that palm seed shells were gnawed on by rats, which would have badly impacted the trees’ ability to reproduce.

Once most of the trees were gone, the entire ecosystem rapidly deteriorated: the soil eroded, most birds vanished along with other plant life, there was no wood available to build canoes or dwellings, people started starving and the population crashed. When Captain James Cook arrived at the island in 1774, his crew counted roughly 700 islanders, living miserable lives, their once mighty canoes reduced to patched fragments of driftwood.

For this reason, the fate of Easter Island and the self-destructive behavior of its populace has often been called “ecocide”, a cautionary tale that serves as a reminder of what can happen when humans use their local resources unsustainably. However, more recent research suggests that deforestation was gradual rather than abrupt. And, in any event, archeological evidence shows that the Rapanui people were resilient even in the face of deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the popular view of a cultural collapse prior to 1722.

So, perhaps the Rapanui weren’t as foolish and reckless as some have suggested. After all, they not only managed to flourish for centuries on the most remote inhabited island in the world but built some of the most impressive monuments in history, the amazing moai (pronounced mo-eye)

What we know about the mysterious moai

Moai with fully visible bodies. Credit: Pixabay.

Archeologists have documented 887 of the massive statues, known as moai, but there may be as many as 1,000 of them on the island. These massive statues carved from volcanic rock usually weigh 80 tons and can reach 10 meters (32.8 ft) in height, though the average is around half that. The largest moai, dubbed “El Gigante”, weighs around 150 tons and towers at an impressive 20 meters (65.6 ft), while the smallest only measures 1.13 meters (3.7 ft). Each moai, carved in the form of an oversized male head on a torso, sits on a stone platform called ahu.

“We could hardly conceive how these islanders, wholly unacquainted with any mechanical power, could raise such stupendous figures,” the British mariner Captain James Cook wrote in 1774.

Archaeologists have documented 887 of the massive statues, known as moai, but there may be up as many as 1,000 of them on the island. These massive statues carved in volcanic rock usually weigh 80 tons and can reach 10 meters in height, though the average is around half that. The largest moai, dubbed “El Gigante”, weighs around 150 tons and towers at an impressive 20 meters, while the smallest only measures 1.13 meters. Each moai, carved in the form of an oversized male head with bust, sits on a stone platform called ahu.

More than 95% of the moai were carved in a quarry at the volcano Rano Raraku. This quarry is rich in tuff, compressed volcanic ash that is easy to carve with limited tools. The natives had no metal at all and only used stone tools called toki.

From the quarry, the heavy statues were transported to the coast, often kilometers away. They likely employed wooden logs which they rolled to move the massive monoliths or used wooden sleds pulled by ropes. However they managed to transport the statues, they did so very gently, without breaking the nose, lips, and other features. Accidents did sometimes happen though, since there are a few statues with broken heads and statues lying at the bottom of slopes.

Eyeholes would not be carved into the statues until they reached their destination. In the Rapanui civilization’s later years, a pukao of red scoria stone from the Pruna Pau quarry would sometimes be placed on the head of the statue, a sign of mana (mental power). The final touch would be marked with eyes of coral, thereby completing the moai, turning it into an ‘ariŋa ora or living face.

However, half of all identified moai, nearly 400 statues, were found still idling at the Rano Raraku quarry. Only a third of the statues reached their final resting place while around 10% were found lying ‘in transit’ outside of Rano Raraku. It’s unclear why so many moai never left their quarry after the craftsmen went to such lengths to carve them, but the great challenges when attempting to move such large blocks of stone didn’t make it easy.

Most of the transported moai are believed to have been carved, moved, and erected between 1400 and 1600 BCE. By the time Cook arrived at the island, the natives seem to have stopped carving such statues — or at least not nearly as the rate they used to — and were neglecting those still standing.

What were the moai for?

Many of the transported moai are found on Easter Islands’ southeast coast, positioned with their backs to the sea. The consensus among archaeologists is that they represent the spirits of the ancestors, chiefs, and other high-ranking males who made important contributions to Rapanui culture. However, the statues don’t capture the defining features of individuals, as you’d see in Roman or Greek sculptures of, say, Caesar or Alexander the Great. Instead, they’re all more or less standardized in design, representing a generic male head with exaggerated features.

Carl Lipo, an anthropologist at Binghamton University in central New York, doesn’t buy into the idea that moai represent their ancestors. There are no ahu and statues found on the top of hills, the obvious place where you’d expect to find monuments meant to send a symbolic message. The moai are instead placed right next to where the natives lived and worked, which suggests they may be landmarks positioned near a valuable resource.

Lipo and colleagues mapped the location of the moai alongside the location of various important resources, such as farmlands, freshwater, and good fishing spots. The statistical analysis suggests the moai sites were most associated with sources of potable water.

“Every single time we found a big source of freshwater, there would be a statue and an ahu. And we saw this over and over and over again. And places where we didn’t find freshwater, we didn’t find statues and ahu,” Lipo told Scientific American, adding that the statues weren’t exactly markers that communicate “this is where you can find drinking water”. That would have been highly impractical considering the Herculean task of carving and moving the statues. Instead, the statues were placed where they are since that’s where people could find the resources they needed to survive.

Since there were many culturally distinct tribes on the small island and there is a great deal of variation in terms of size for the statues, the moai could also serve to signal status to neighboring communities. Large statues are costly, meaning the biggest moai could be regarded as proof that a particular group of tribesmen is clever and hard-working.

Another line of thought suggests the statues are sacred sites of worship. When Roggeveen arrived on the island in 1722, he described in his ship log how he witnessed natives praying to the statues.

“The people had, to judge by appearances, no weapons; although, as I remarked, they relied in case of need on their gods or idols which stand erected all along the sea shore in great numbers, before which they fall down and invoke them. These idols were all hewn out of stone, and in the form of a man, with long ears, adorned on the head with a crown, yet all made with skill: whereat we wondered not a little. A clear space was reserved around these objects of worship by laying stones to a distance of twenty or thirty paces. I took some of the people to be priests, because they paid more reverence to the gods than did the rest; and showed themselves much more devout in their ministrations. One could also distinguish these from the other people quite well, not only by their wearing great white plugs in their ear lobes, but in having the head wholly shaven and hairless.”

Finally, the giant stone sculptures may have served an important role in farming — not for astronomy purposes as seen with other megalithic sites like Stonehenge but in the very literal sense. The soil on Easter Island is highly prone to erosion, especially in the absence of the once plentiful woods. But when Jo Anne Van Tilburg, an archeologist and head of the Easter Island Statue Project, sampled the soil around quarries, she found it was unexpectedly fertile, high in calcium and phosphorus.

“Our analysis showed that in addition to serving as a quarry and a place for carving statues, Rano Raraku also was the site of a productive agricultural area,” Tilburg said in a statement.

“Coupled with a fresh-water source in the quarry, it appears the practice of quarrying itself helped boost soil fertility and food production in the immediate surroundings,” said Dr. Sarah Sherwood, a geoarchaeologist and soils specialist at the University of the South in Sewanee and a member of the Easter Island Statue Project.

In related research, anthropologist Mara Mulrooney of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu analyzed various archeological sites on the island and found the Rapanui people cultivated gardens of yams, sweet potatoes, taro and other crops in enclosures with stones and boulders strategically placed on the soil. The rocks not only protected the plants from the wind and deterred weed growth but also boosted soil nutrients thanks to the weathering of minerals.

When Tilburg and Sherwood excavated two of 21 partially buried statues on the slopes of Rano Raraku, they revealed each statue was etched with crescent shapes and other figures on their back. A carved human head found resting against the base of one of the statues suggests that these moai may have served a ceremonial purpose of some kind, perhaps related to plant growth.

Carved designs on the back of an Easter Island statue suggest that the stone creation was used in soil fertility rituals, researchers say. Credit: Easter Island Project.

If quarry sites were the main farming plots, this would explain why so many statues haven’t been moved from their origin. Perhaps the islanders were not aware that the volcanic statues were making the soil fertile thanks to the minerals they contain, and instead attributed their plant growth to some divine intervention. As such, the statues may serve a double role as a ritual object and fertilizer. 

The culture of Easter Island and why the heads are there is something we may never fully understand, but with each archeological trip, we are getting closer to uncovering the secrets of the Rapanui.

Ancient Easter Island clans may teach us how to live in perfect isolation on Mars

Moai at Rano Raraku – Easter Island. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Easter Island, known as Rapa Nui in the native language, is a tiny speck of land smack in the middle of the South Pacific. For millions of years, the island was only inhabited by sea birds and dragonflies until a weary group of Polynesian seafarers — perhaps a single-family — disembarked from their double-hulled canoe on the island at around the year 1200 C.E.

From there on until contact with European settlers centuries later, the people of Easter Island lived in absolute isolation from the outside world. No one from Easter Island sailed back to the mainland, which is thousands of miles away, nor did anyone from the mainland come to visit.

Easter Island is famous for its 70-ton carved statues that dot its surface. But among academics, the story of Easter Island is often used to illustrate what happens when a society destroys itself by overexploiting its own resources. When the first people arrived on the 63-square-mile patch of land, the place was covered with as many as 15 million trees.

But the settlers, who were slash-and-burn farmers, burned down most of the woods to open up space for crops and gather building material. Within a couple of generations, the island reached an unsustainable number of people, about 3,000 to 4,000 people at its height, and too few trees. Some other generations later, there were barely any trees left at all. What was once a thriving community became a shadow of its former self, with the island’s inhabitants condemned to living marginal lives, their once mighty canoes reduced to fragments of driftwood.

In his best-selling book, Collapse, author Jared Diamond called Easter Island’s self-destructive behavior “ecocide”, and warned that the island’s fate could one day be our own on a planetary level.

However, there are also positive lessons that can be learned from such a uniquely isolated community. In a new study published today in the journal PLOS ONE, an international team of researchers explored how complex community patterns helped the islands survive for centuries.

“The cool thing about Easter Island is that it’s a great case study for what happens in absolute isolation,” said Carl Lipo, a professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Binghamton University. “From our best understanding, once people got to the island, that was it. They weren’t going anywhere else and there wasn’t anyone else coming in.” 

Despite the island’s small size, measuring just 15 miles long and 7 miles wide, the Rapa Nui people were segregated into multiple clans that maintained both cultural and physical separation. Thanks to these independent sub-groups, the islanders preserved cultural diversity despite the small population size.

Strikingly, archaeological evidence shows stylistically distinct artifacts in communities only 500 meters apart. DNA and isotope analyses of the natives’ physical remains also showed that they didn’t stray too far from their homes.

Interaction configurations of Rapa Nui communities as modeled by ahu locations. Credit: Carl Lipo.

This clan-separation of the inhabitants may have saved these small communities of cultural random drift. This phenomenon was originally proposed in genetics to describe a mechanism of evolution in which allele (gene variants) frequencies of a population change over generations due to chance rather than natural selection. Random drift, or genetic drift, happens in all populations but it is most impactful in small populations, such as an isolated patch of vegetation or a small community of people in the middle of the Pacific.

In time, random drift can uniformize a population’s genotype, the loss of some alleles (including beneficial ones), and the fixation, or rise to %100, percent frequency, of other alleles.

This concept also applies culturally. If a community of people is very small, over time specific cultural traits, such as specific words, customs, or techniques (i.e. making pottery, tool manufacturing, etc) can vanish because there’s no one left to pass down the information to subsequent generations.

“These things are potentially changing over time because of differences in how people are copying each other,” Robert DiNapoli, co-author of the study and an anthropologist at Binghamton University.

“Let’s say my dad died before he was able to teach me some important technology and he’s the only person who knew how to do it,” DiNapoli said. “That can have a negative impact in a small, isolated population, where they never will interact with another group of people who might give them those ideas back again.”

The researchers give several examples where isolation eventually wiped out populations. Indigenous people in Tasmania lost certain skills such as fishing techniques practiced by people on neighboring mainland Australia. Isolation is also blamed for the disappearance of populations on the “mystery islands” of the Pacific Ocean.

But the new study shows that while the number of people of a population is highly important when it comes to driving changes in the diversity of cultural traits over time, so is the structure of the population.

“Whereas if you have lots of different small subpopulations, you end up keeping more diversity, because it’s sequestered in these different subgroups,” DiNapoli said.

With the help of a computer model, the researchers simulated how the island’s distinctive clans affected the retention of cultural information and how they interacted with one another.

The results suggest that the greater the number of subgroups with limited interaction, the more likely it is that a population will retain potentially beneficial cultural information, a shield against random drift.

“Based on simulation modeling, it seems that population structure is super important for driving and retaining changes in cultural diversity,” DiNapoli said. “This could potentially be a really important factor for change in human history in general.” 

Much of the cultural heritage of the Rapa Nui has been lost forever or was eradicated when Europeans arrived in greater numbers, following Captain James Cook’s first visit there in 1774. By 1877, only 111 natives were left alive after diseases brought by the new settlers destroyed the population, and these natives were taken away as slaves. Now, no one knows how to interpret rongorongo, a system of glyphs that the islanders may have used to record information.

Yet despite all their hardship and near-total obliteration, there are still some Rapa Nui cultural customs that have miraculously survived. These include songs, dances, and a cat’s cradle-type of string art used in oral storytelling.

Against all odds, the Rapa Nui culture lived on — and there may be highly important valuable lessons to be learned from all of this for future intrepid explorers. The dangerous journey to Easter Island in the early 1200s can be compared to a manned trip to Mars. On the Red Planet, humans that are there for good in order to colonize Mars will remain profoundly isolated, and so will their children’s children.

“They become this isolated Easter Island in the middle of space,” Lipo said. “What spatial structure on Mars would you need to maintain the information maximally in that community?”

Native Americans made contact with Polynesians before European arrival

Indigenous Americans and Polynesians made epic voyages through the open ocean, encountering each other as early as 1200 A.D. That’s centuries before the arrival of Europeans, according to a new study, which looked at the genomes of modern inhabitants from Polynesia and the Americas.

Easter Island. Credit Flickr

The possibility of contacts between the two regions has been an area of interest for researchers for decades. Archeologists believed the two regions made early contact, mainly due to the early cultivation of a South American sweet potato in Polynesia. The results of this new genomic study now confirmed they did.

Alexander Ioannidis from Stanford University in California and his international colleagues analyzed genetic data from more than 800 individuals hailing from 15 indigenous American communities and 17 Polynesian islands. The “conclusive evidence” suggests early encounters between the two groups.

The study specifically looked for signs of early Polynesians and Indigenous Americans interbreeding, which would leave a clear genetic signature in their offspring. What they found was that people from Polynesian islands have genetic traces in their DNA linked to indigenous South Americans, especially with the Zenu tribe from Colombia.

Then, the researchers went on to trace the timing of the encounter, looking at the length of the indigenous American genomic segments. They finally estimated that the initial admixture took place in the eastern islands of Polynesia around 1150-1230 A.D. On Eastern Island, the encounter was much later at around 1380 AD, despite being the closest to South America.

“Our analyses suggest strongly that a single contact event occurred in eastern Polynesia, before the settlement of Rapa Nui, between Polynesian individuals and a Native American group most closely related to the indigenous inhabitants of present-day Colombia,” the study said.

Some open questions

While the study confirmed the encounter, it couldn’t clarify how it unfolded. South Americans may have drifted thousands of miles to the Pacific or Polynesians might have traveled to South America and mixed with the locals there. The question is still open for the researchers, who hope to continue looking into this.

The Polynesians are well known for their skills in ocean exploration because of their long voyages across the Pacific Ocean. They have traveled as far as the Hawaiian Island and Easter Island in the east and New Zealand in the south, looking for new settlements on canoes guided by the stars.

But some have argued that indigenous Americans also adventured to Polynesia, taking advantage of favorable weather conditions and currents. Back in 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl famously sailed on a simple wooden raft from the coast of Peru to Polynesia, in order to prove his theory that people from South America could have colonized Polynesia.

The study adds more evidence to the early contact between indigenous Americans and Polynesians. Previously, researchers discovered hints of their connections in the sweet potato plant, which is from South America but was grown all over Polynesia before Europeans arrived in the Pacific.

In 2013, a study suggested that the sweet potato was first introduced to Polynesia between 1000 and 1100 A.D., most likely by Polynesian voyagers who reached the western coast of South America and brought back the crop, before spreading it to other Pacific islands.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Truck crashes into Easter Island sacred statue

Located in the Pacific Ocean near Chile, the Easter Island has always been surrounded by mysteries and open questions due to its popular moai — the emblematic gigantic heads made out of stone that belonged to the Rapa Nui, the community that originally lived there.

The descendants of the Rapa Nui now manage the area, a popular tourism destination with over 130,000 visitors per year. This has led to many problems such as tons of waste and growing traffic, culminating yesterday when a truck smashed into a moai.

Credits: Facebook Comunidad Indígena Mau Henua

A Chilean resident was arrested after impacting with his truck an ahu, a sacred ceremonial platform, where a moai was located, causing “incalculable” damage, according to the local communities.

“The damage is incalculable,” said the president of the Polynesian indigenous community, Camilo Rapu, who said in a statement that the events occurred in the morning and that the person responsible was finally stopped.

Through a video, Rapu explained that the driver “collided the ahu with a vehicle, creating great damage.” The ahu is the place where their ancestors were buried over 1,000 years ago, he said, adding that “great harm” was also caused to the moai that was over the ahu.

The representative of the Ma’u Henua community said that they are “very sad and outraged” over the incident, confirming that they have “taken all legal actions” and hope “authorities take action and sanction in an exemplary manner for this not to happen again.”

The images of the damage were disseminated by the community on their Facebook page, where they reiterated “the importance of taking care of the heritage we have in our park because they are not only archaeological remains, they are sacred elements for living culture.”

Credits: Facebook Comunidad Indígena Mau Henua

It was, apparently, an accident, caused by a faulty brake. The head of the local police Jorge Fuentes Sierra said there wasn’t even any driving involved.

“The defendant went to that sector to visit some friends and left his truck with a stone in the front wheel because the handbrake was damaged,” Fuentes said. “Then, he went back to the truck and took the stone, causing the truck to move downhill in direction of the ahu, hitting it and climbing on it.”

Meanwhile, chief prosecutor Lorena Villagrán said that the detainee was not under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident and that he will go to the detention control hearing next week.

The detainee has been residing on Easter Island for more than 12 year. The area where the accident happened is protected by a heritage law and is managed by the local community.

In the 1980s, between 2,000 and 5,000 travelers per year arrived at the Easter island. These days, this has climbed to over 100,000 a year. Also, instead of two flights a week from Santiago, Chile’s capital, there are three per day.

Image Credits: Facebook Comunidad Indígena Mau Henua

That is a huge burden on an island with only about 6,000 full-time residents, not to mention a place where water and other natural resources are limited and should be used with care.

Although in the past visitors were able to tour the national park freely and approach all the Moai, the excess of tourism has come with restrictions and now travelers must follow a prescribed path and only see some of the statues.

Why the Easter Island statues were built where they were

A new study suggests that the mysterious moai statues on Easter Island were placed to mark sources of fresh water.

Image in public domain.

A Polynesian population called the Rapa Nui arrived on Easter Island in 1200 AD. Despite the unpredictable weather and nutrient-poor soil, they established a thriving and industrious culture, leaving behind many impressive artifacts. Most famous among these artifacts are the giant moai: giant basaltic statues scattered across the island.

Although they are still shrouded in mystery, several explanations have been proposed. The most straightforward one is that the moai represent the inhabitants’ gods or ancestors, watching over them. But a new study has a new idea: the statues are marking valuable sources of freshwater.

As if Easter Island wasn’t inhospitable enough, there’s another problem: freshwater. Easter Island is a volcanic high island, consisting mainly of three extinct coalesced volcanoes. While there are freshwater lakes inside the volcano craters, there are no streams or other sources of surface freshwater. This must have been quite a worry for the Rapa Nui people, and the megaliths may have been built in to indicate freshwater, researchers suggest. The relationship isn’t straightforward, however: it’s not that all moai are indicators of freshwater, but everywhere there is some subsurface water source, there’s always moai nearby.

“Our results suggest that ahu locations are most parsimoniously explained by distance from freshwater sources, in particular coastal seeps, with important implications for community formation and inter-community competition in precontact times,” researchers write.

The team analyzed the connection between the moai (and the platforms they were placed on, called ahu) and rock mulch agricultural gardens, marine resources, and freshwater sources — the three most important resources for the Rapa Nui civilization. They didn’t find any connection to the first two, but the third one provided a good fit. The fresh water would pass through the ground into aquifers, seeping into caves as well as emerging around the coast. Controlling these places would have been quite valuable to the natives.

This may mean that, at least in part, the statues were built to indicate territorial domination over a sparse resource.

“What is important about it is that it demonstrates the statue locations themselves are not a weird ritual place — represent ritual in a sense of there is symbolic meaning to them, but they are integrated into the lives of the community,” said Prof Carl Lipo from Binghamton University in New York, who was co-author of the research.

However, not everyone is convinced by this theory. Jo Anne Val Tilburg, an Easter Island expert from the University of California, Los Angeles believes that these freshwater seeps would have been minor resources, so it is highly unlikely that the moai were built in relation to them.

Whatever the case may be, the enigma of the moai and their creators will undoubtedly continue to puzzle us and stir debates for many years to come

The study has been published in PLoS.

easter-island

Easter Island natives may not have sailed all the way to South America after all

easter-island

Credit: Pixabay.

Easter Island is one of the most mysterious cultural landmarks in the world. Located smack in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean and a staggering 2,300 miles away from South America, the island is littered with over 1,000 massive carved statues called Moai. Easter Island became even more interesting in 2014 when a paleogenomics analysis found Polynesian natives had mixed with Native Americans at least 19 generations ago, between 1280 and 1495 or long-before Europeans had set foot on the island for the first time in 1722. However, a new study published today in Current Biology contradicts the findings suggesting the islanders remained isolated until they made contact with Europeans.

Buzzkill

Lars Fehren-Schmitz, associate professor of anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, led the team that analyzed bone fragments from the ancient skeletal remains of five individuals. Three individuals lived prior to European contact, and two lived after.

Fehren-Schmitz had expected to find evidence of Native American gene flow in the pre-European contact individuals but none of the individuals who lived between the 13th and 19th centuries showed any sign of Native American ancestry.

“We were really surprised we didn’t find anything. There’s a lot of evidence that seems plausible, so we were convinced we would find direct evidence of pre-European contact with South America, but it wasn’t there,” Fehren-Schmitz said in a press release.

The 2014 study made waves, finding that the genomes of 28 modern Rapanui (Easter Island natives) inherited 8% of their DNA from Native American ancestors. Signs pointed towards mixing between the two populations many generations before any European set foot on the island. This immediately conjured the image of daredevil Polynesians manning their wooden outrigger canoes, making a spectacular journey more than 2,000 miles across the ocean where they made contact with American Natives. The presence of crops native to the Americas in Polynesia, including the Andean sweet potato, long before the first reported European contact, strengthened this image.

The new findings, however, dispell this theory.

It could be that the pre-Columbian individuals that Fehren-Schmitz et al. analyzed came from isolated families that had yet to contact the Native American genetic signature, which would have already been present on the island in other individuals. After all, the initial study sampled 28 individuals while this time only five individuals were analyzed. Maybe, but Fehren-Schmitz’s hypothesis is far more plausible.

“This study highlights the value of ancient DNA to test hypotheses about past population dynamics,” said Fehren-Schmitz. “We know the island’s modern populations have some Native American ancestry, and now we know that early inhabitants did not. So the big questions remain: Where and when did these groups interact to change the genetic signature of Easter Islanders?

When Europeans first made contact with Native Americans in the 16th century, they made sure to “civilize” the locals with their way of life. Slavery and mass deportation soon followed. By the time the first Native American slaves arrived at Easter Island in the 18th century, they would have already had short-bursts of European and Native American DNA in their genomes. So after Polynesian Rapanui mixed with the continental people, the genetic analysis could have fooled us that the Native American genome was present on the island long before Europeans made contact.

The bottom line is that ascertaining the history of a whole culture of people is an extremely complex affair if genes are all you have to work with. It’s likely, however, that this is not the last word on the matter.

“We want to do more work to determine more precisely when this gene flow between Native Americans and the people of Rapa Nui occurred, and where in the Americas it originated,” Fehren-Schmitz said. “The population dynamics of these regions are fascinating. We need to study the ancient populations of other islands—if remains exist.”

Scientific reference: Current Biology, Fehren-Schmitz and Jarman et al.: “Genetic Ancestry of Rapanui before and after European Contact” DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.09.029. 

Easter Island populations were not destroyed by warfare, reseach finds

The Easter Island is one of the biggest mysteries in human history. How people got there and where they came from, how they built the huge moai statues and why, and what brought their demise are still unsolved questions. But at leas for the latter, we may be getting a bit closer to the truth. The previously accepted theory was that inter-tribe warfare brought their demise, but according to a new study, that was never the case.

The famous Easter Island statues. Photo by Hhooper1.

Easter Island is located in the middle of nowhere. The closest inhabited island is Pitcairn Island, 2,075 kilometres (1,289 mi) away. Somehow, people coming from thousands of kilometers away settled on Easter Island and developed an idyllic society. But for many years, archaeologists have argued that the island was plagued by internal wars, an argument backed by the thousands of obsidian, triangular objects found on the surface, thought to be arrow heads. They are called mata’a.

But Carl Lipo, professor of anthropology at Binghamton University believes this is simply not true. He studied the shape, size and deformation patterns of 400-plus mata’a and found it unlikely that they were used for combat.

“We found that when you look at the shape of these things, they just don’t look like weapons at all,” said Lipo. “When you can compare them to European weapons or weapons found anywhere around the world when there are actually objects used for warfare, they’re very systematic in their shape. They have to do their job really well. Not doing well is risking death.”

“You can always use something as a spear. Anything that you have can be a weapon. But under the conditions of warfare, weapons are going to have performance characteristics. And they’re going to be very carefully fashioned for that purpose because it matters…You would cut somebody {with a mata’a], but they certainly wouldn’t be lethal in any way.”

He believes that this theory was never really challenged with evidence and people just went with it, but Easter Island lived in peace until European settlements came in, bringing destruction and collecting slaves.

“What people traditionally think about the island is being this island of catastrophe and collapse just isn’t true in a pre-historic sense. Populations were successful and lived sustainably on the island up until European contact,” said Lipo.

Instead, he believes that mata’a were used as domestic instruments, either for agriculture or in tattoo rituals, something very common on the island.

“We’ve been trying to focus on individual bits of evidence that support the collapse narrative to demonstrate that really there’s no support whatsoever for that story,” he said. “Sort of a pillar of the broader study is the fact that this is an amazing society that really was successful. It just doesn’t look like success to us because we see fields that are rock, we think catastrophe, and in fact it’s actually productivity.”

Researchers find early connection between Easter Island and America inhabitants

People from the Americas may have been making their way to the Easter Island way before Dutch commander Jakob Roggeveen arrived in 1722, according to new genomic evidence; this new evidence showed that the isolated Rapanui people shared a strong connection with Native American populations hundreds of years earlier. This evidence shows that early Americans undertook the 4000 kilometer route to Easter Island – or the Rapanui took the journey to America and back.

easter island sculpture

Easter island is famous for its large human head statues, called moai. A total of 887 monolithic stone statues have been inventoried on the island and in museum collections so far. Image source.

Easter Island is one of the most mysterious places on the face of the Earth. A Polynesian island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, it was inhabited by Polynesian settlers, who developed a thriving community. However, human activity, the introduction of the Polynesian rat and overpopulation led to gradual deforestation and extinction of natural resources, which in turn, led to the demise of the Rapanui population, as they are called. By the time the Europeans arrived in 1722, the island had just 2-3000 inhabitants, from over 15,000 just a century ago. Currently, there are 5,800 residents, of which some 60% are descendants of the aboriginal Rapanui.

A new study has shown that early Americans may have been visiting Easter Island way before that, which is remarkable since the island is one of the remote places on Earth. It is also an indicator of how powerful genomic evidence is, and how we need to rethink what we thought about early exploration.

“[The findings] are a reminder that early human populations extensively explored the planet,” says Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas from the Natural History Museum of Denmark’s Centre for GeoGenetics. “Textbook versions of human colonization events — the peopling of the Americas, for example — need to be re-evaluated utilizing genomic data.”

This is not the first time American contact has been suggested for Easter Island. The first settlers arrived on the island around AD 1200, in canoes; there were probably between 30 and 100 Polynesian men and women. They settled on the island, despite (or perhaps because) it was so remote, taking them probably a few weeks or even months to reach the first inhabitable island. But there is evidence that they had contact with the outside world. The most notable is the presence of crops native to the Americas in Polynesia, including the Andean sweet potato, long before the first reported European contact. Under reasonable circumstances, this could only mean that someone from the Americas arrived on Easter Island, bringing with them native plants. Now, this theory has been not only confirmed – but also placed in a time frame.

Genome-wide analysis of 27 native Rapanui showed that there was significant contact between the island people and Native Americans sometime between approximately AD 1300 and AD 1500, 19 to 23 generations ago. They also mixed with Europeans, but much later, in about 1850 – over 100 years after they first reached the island. Personally, I find it quite curious that it took Europeans a century to start settling there, but the remoteness of the island may be an explanation. Today, as this study revealed, the genetic heritage of the Rapanui is 76% Polynesian, 8% Native American, and 16% European.

It seems more likely that the Rapanui navigated to the Americas and back than the other way around.

Now, there are two theories for this – either Americans sailed to Rapanui or Polynesians sailed to the Americas and back. The former seems less likely than the latter. First of all, the Rapanui were experienced sailors – as demonstrated by the fact that they reached Easter Island in the first place. Second of all, it would have been pretty difficult for Americans to reach Easter Island – it seems much more likely that the Rapanui found America, because basically, if they went east, they reached America. As previous studies note, “all sailing voyages heading intentionally east from Rapa Nui would always reach the Americas, with a trip lasting from two weeks to approximately two months.” On the other hand, the trip from the Americas to Rapa Nui is much more challenging, which would have made it likely to fail or miss the island completely. From the Americas, Rapanui is indeed a small target.

Whatever the case, the Rapanui were (and still are) an amazing culture – so surprising that they actually force us to rewrite history books when it comes to early explorers; and genomic studies are the perfect tool to do just that.

Journal Reference: J. Víctor Moreno-Mayar, Simon Rasmussen, Andaine Seguin-Orlando, Morten Rasmussen, Mason Liang, Siri Tennebø Flåm, Benedicte Alexandra Lie, Gregor Duncan Gilfillan, Rasmus Nielsen, Erik Thorsby, Eske Willerslev, Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas. Genome-wide Ancestry Patterns in Rapanui Suggest Pre-European Admixture with Native Americans. Current Biology, 2014 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.057