Scientists believe they’ve uncovered the meaning of some of the Moai stone monoliths found on Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island.
The scientists analyzed soil in the vicinity of two of the Moai statues and found traces of banana, taro, and sweet potato, according to research published last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
These traces indicate the statues could have been used to celebrate the crop fertility of soils in the region.
The famed stone monoliths that tower over the island of Rapa Nui—colloquially known as Easter Island—have puzzled scientists for centuries.
But now, archaeologists and soil scientists studying the ancient Moai believe they may have uncovered the meaning of the famous statues. Clues in nearby soils suggest the statues may have been placed there to celebrate the fertility of crops in the area.
For more than three decades, Jo Ann Van Tilburg, of the University of California, Los Angeles, has studied the origins of the Moai along with Rapanui artist Cristián Arévalo Pakarati and other members of the local community. They recruited soil scientist Sarah Sherwood, of the University of the South in Tennessee, to analyze the soil the base of two statues found peculiarly perched upright in the Rano Raraku quarry on the eastern part of the island, where most of the more than 1,000 Moai statues originated. (The scientists suspect that work in the quarry began around A.D. 1455.)
The team analyzed soils at the foot of two of the structures, which archaeologists believe were erected by or before A.D. 1510 to A.D. 1645, and found chemical evidence of common food crops. The soils revealed traces of foods like taro, banana, and sweet potato, according to research published last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
The findings suggest locals on the island may have actually utilized the quarry itself as a place to grow food.
“When we got the chemistry results back, I did a double take,” Sherwood said in a statement. Soils across much of Rapa Nui are in poor shape—either highly eroded or leeched of the vital nutrients that help plants grow. Analysis showed that soils within the quarry are far more fertile than previously thought, with plenty of water and elevated levels of elements like calcium and phosphorus, which are essential in increasing crop yields.
“This study radically alters the idea that all standing statues in Rano Raraku were simply awaiting transport out of the quarry,” Van Tilburg said in the same statement. “That is, these and probably other upright Moai in Rano Raraku were retained in place to ensure the sacred nature of the quarry itself. The Moai were central to the idea of fertility, and in Rapanui belief their presence here stimulated agricultural food production.”
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