You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Easter Island Heads Mystery Solved?

Newsweek logo Newsweek 10/10/2018 Hannah Osborne

UP NEXT
UP NEXT
(Video provided by Amaze Lab)

The lost civilization of Easter Island may have chosen the location of the iconic moai heads to signal where fresh water was available, a study has suggested.

Carl Lipo, an anthropologist who has spent almost 20 years studying the Rapa Nui people and their disappearance from Easter Island, was looking at how the population was able to survive with such limited access to drinking water. Across the island, there is very little access to freshwater—springs and streams are almost completely absent and there is very little rainfall (approximately 48.8 inches per year). So how did a civilization of an estimated 15,000-20,000 at its peak manage to survive?

To find out, Lipo and colleagues carried out field studies looking at how the islanders might have used brackish groundwater discharge that surfaces along coastlines. Brackish water is saltier than normal water, but not as salty as seawater. Previous accounts from European explorers indicated the Rapa Nui people drank brackish water, but where they accessed it was not known.

Download the all-new Microsoft News app to receive up-to-the minute news from the world’s best sources – available now on iOS and Android

Lipo’s research, published in the Hydrogeology Journal, finds the islanders could have survived by drinking the brackish groundwater discharge that becomes ponded in trenches along the coast, or that floats on the coastal waters of the island. “Two field surveys indicate abundant locations of brackish but potable water along the coastline… Although coastal groundwater sources are of poor quality, they were apparently sufficient to support the population and allow them to build the magnificent statues for which Easter Island is famous,” the study concludes.

Statues of heads known as "Moais" stand at Rano Raraku, the quarry on Easter Island, Chile. The 400 or so sculptures have bodies attached, but they are buried under the dirt and not visible. Chile’s government is beginning to restrict tourism to the island, and have proposed to change Easter Island’s name to "Rapa Nui," as residents call the island. © AP Photo/Karen Schwartz, File Statues of heads known as "Moais" stand at Rano Raraku, the quarry on Easter Island, Chile. The 400 or so sculptures have bodies attached, but they are buried under the dirt and not visible. Chile’s government is beginning to restrict tourism to the island, and have proposed to change Easter Island’s name to "Rapa Nui," as residents call the island.

What is more intriguing, however, is the location of the water sources and the position of the Easter Island statues. The moai appear to have been placed at spots where drinking water was available.

The statutes—which can reach up to 30 feet in height—are carved from compressed volcanic ash. In total, there are almost 900 statues. They were built at some point between 1200 and 1600. After the Europeans arrived in the 1700s, they were toppled over, which has been attributed to tribal warfare and an earthquake. 

Easter Island heads might have been located by drinking water sources. © iStock Easter Island heads might have been located by drinking water sources.

Why the Rapa Nui built these statues and what purpose they served is not entirely understood. It is thought they were symbols of religious and political power, representing the ancient ancestors of Polynesians. Most of the statues are located on the coasts of Easter Island—Lipo suggests this could have been done for practical purposes.

"Now that we know more about the location of freshwater, however, the location of these monuments and other features makes tremendous sense: they are positioned where freshwater is immediately available," he said in a statement.

a person standing in front of a sunset © iStock

The team will now try to better understand how closely the location of the moai and the availability of drinking water are tied. This could eventually provide answers about one of the world’s most enduring archaeological mysteries. "This information ultimately sheds light on the conditions that drove and enabled these communities to work together to achieve their feats of engineering," Lipo said.

The Rapa Nui civilization collapsed after the arrival of European explorers. Foreign disease is thought to have played a huge role in their demise—along with the slave raiding expeditions in the 1860s. 

Gallery: Mysterious monuments from ancient civilizations (Espresso)

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Newsweek

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon