‘Pre­dictable’ so­lu­tion to gi­ant heads’ gi­ant mys­tery

Lo­ca­tion of stat­ues not some ‘weird rit­ual place’ – the ex­pla­na­tion could be nearby fresh wa­ter. Nicola Davis re­ports.

Sunday Star-Times - - World -

The huge stone fig­ures of Easter Is­land have be­guiled ex­plor­ers, re­searchers and the wider world for cen­turies, but now ex­perts say they have cracked one of the big­gest mys­ter­ies: why the stat­ues are where they are.

Ex­perts from Bing­ham­ton Uni­ver­sity in New York say they have an­a­lysed the lo­ca­tions of the me­galithic plat­forms, or ahu, on which many of the stat­ues known as moai sit, as well as scru­ti­n­is­ing sites of the is­land’s re­sources, and have dis­cov­ered the struc­tures are typ­i­cally found close to sources of fresh wa­ter.

They say the find­ing backs up the idea that as­pects of the con­struc­tion of the plat­forms and stat­ues, such as their size, could be tied to the abun­dance and qual­ity of such sup­plies.

‘‘What is im­por­tant about it is that it demon­strates the statue lo­ca­tions them­selves are not a weird rit­ual place – [the ahu and moai] rep­re­sent rit­ual in a sense of there is sym­bolic mean­ing to them, but they are in­te­grated into the lives of the com­mu­nity,’’ said Pro­fes­sor Carl Lipo, co-au­thor of the re­search.

Easter Is­land, or Rapa Nui, has more than 300 me­galithic plat­forms, each of which might have been made by a sep­a­rate com­mu­nity. The first of these are be­lieved to have been con­structed in the 13th cen­tury, and many are found around the coast.

It is thought the mon­u­ments rep­re­sent an­ces­tors and were linked to rit­ual ac­tiv­ity, form­ing a fo­cal point for com­mu­ni­ties, but the rea­son for their lo­ca­tions was pre­vi­ously a mys­tery.

While stud­ies have suggested the sites might have been cho­sen be­cause of a link to key re­sources, the team says the lat­est re­search is the first at­tempt to scru­ti­nise such claims. The team fo­cused on the east of the is­land, where var­i­ous re­sources have been well mapped, and looked at the dis­tri­bu­tion of 93 me­galithic plat­forms con­structed be­fore Euro­pean sailors turned up in the 18th cen­tury.

Af­ter find­ing no link to the prox­im­ity of rock used for tools or for the mon­u­ments, they looked at whether the ahu were found near other im­por­tant re­sources: gar­dens spread with stones in which crops like sweet po­ta­toes were grown, sites linked to fish­ing, and sources of fresh wa­ter.

Lipo said he be­came in­ter­ested in the lat­ter af­ter he and his col­leagues be­gan delv­ing into where those liv­ing on Rapa Nui got their drink­ing wa­ter from.

The is­land has no per­ma­nent streams, and there is lit­tle ev­i­dence that res­i­dents re­lied on the is­land’s lakes. How­ever, fresh wa­ter passes through the ground into aquifers, seep­ing into caves as well as emerg­ing around the coast.

‘‘It is sort of amaz­ing at low tide when the wa­ter goes down, sud­denly there are streams run­ning off at dif­fer­ent spots right at the coast that are just pure fresh wa­ter,’’ said Lipo.

‘‘We no­ticed this, ac­tu­ally, when we were do­ing a sur­vey on the is­land, that we would see horses drink­ing from the ocean.’’

His­tor­i­cal records re­veal is­landers drank this rather brack­ish wa­ter, while stud­ies sug­gest they also made wells to cap­ture drink­ing wa­ter.

The re­sults of the new re­search, pub­lished in the jour­nal Plos One, re­veal prox­im­ity to fresh­wa­ter sites is the best ex­pla­na­tion for the ahu lo­ca­tions – and ex­plains why they crop up in­land as well as on the coast.

‘‘The ex­cep­tions to the rule about be­ing at the coast where wa­ter comes out ac­tu­ally are met by the fact there is also wa­ter there – it is found through cave lo­ca­tions,’’ said Lipo, adding his­toric wells were found to ex­plain some ahu lo­ca­tions ap­par­ently with­out fresh wa­ter.

Lipo said the re­sults chimed with the team’s ex­pe­ri­ences on the ground. ‘‘Ev­ery time we saw mas­sive amounts of fresh wa­ter, we saw gi­ant stat­ues,’’ he said.

‘‘It was ridicu­lously pre­dictable.’’

The re­sults, said Lipo, made sense, as drink­ing wa­ter is es­sen­tial for com­mu­ni­ties and it is im­prac­ti­cal to have to walk miles for a quick swig.

‘‘You would do stuff near the fresh wa­ter,’’ he said.

But he says the study also adds weight to the idea that com­mu­ni­ties com­peted and in­ter­acted through mon­u­ment build­ing, in con­trast to the idea that is­landers en­gaged in lethal vi­o­lence over scarce nat­u­ral re­sources – some­thing Lipo says there is lit­tle ev­i­dence for.

In­deed, the team is now ex­plor­ing whether var­i­ous as­pects of the stat­ues such as their size or other fea­tures might be linked to the qual­ity of the wa­ter re­sources, po­ten­tially of­fer­ing a way in which a com­mu­nity could show off a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage to other groups of is­landers.

And com­mu­nity and co­op­er­a­tion, stresses Lipo, were cru­cial in con­struc­tion of the mon­u­ments. ‘‘Any­thing that brings you to­gether is go­ing to make you stronger and al­low you to sur­vive,’’ he said. ‘‘I think that is the se­cret to Easter Is­land.’’

‘‘Ev­ery time we saw mas­sive amounts of fresh wa­ter, we saw gi­ant stat­ues. It was ridicu­lously pre­dictable.’’

Carl Lipo


The moais of Ahu Ton­gariki are just one of more than 300 sim­i­lar plat­forms on Easter Is­land.

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