New clues clarify symbolism of Easter Island statues

For hundreds of years, around 1000 monoliths have stood on Easter Island (Rapa Nui). Called moai (or moai) , the objective of these statues has always been a mystery for anthropologists. Several hypotheses suggest that they are linked to fertility, renewal and abundance. Recently, a team of archaeologists has uncovered evidence confirming this link.

More than 90% of the moai statues were carved in a quarry called Rano Raraku: a volcanic crater which, at its base, represents less than 1% of the total area of ​​the island, but nevertheless served as a unique source of stone used to make the statues of the island. However, Rano Raraku is not limited to cut stone, according to the researchers, based on an analysis of soil samples taken in the region.

According to the research team, it was an industrial site used to temporarily produce and store the moai before it was removed and transported to other places on the island. However, almost 400 of the monoliths remain in the quarry, and some are buried in the ground with the support of fortified rock structures which suggest that the placement is not temporary. The reason would be the soil rich in calcium and phosphorus, nutrients necessary for the growth of plants and crops.

Several hundred moai are still present in the quarry used to make them. Credit: Easter Island Statue Project

In addition to evidence of soil fertility, researchers also found traces of ancient crops in the samples, including bananas, taro, sweet potatoes, and Chinese mulberry.

These signs show, according to the researchers, that in addition to using the quarry for producing the moai, the Rapa Nui company also used the space as a place to grow the food they needed, taking advantage of the rich soils. and plowed Rano Raraku, which would have produced higher yields with lower labor costs

Why were the moai also erected in the crater, in the middle of the earth from which they themselves were produced? It has long been theorized that the ceremonial purpose of monoliths was associated with fertility rituals, and researchers say their field work provides chemical evidence for this link - not to mention the discovery of carved pits, suggesting that the moai were probably erected to stand and “watch indefinitely” on this fertile ground.


New excavations in Easter Island's statue quarry: Soil fertility, site formation and chronology

Authors: Sarah C.SherwoodaJ  AnneVan Tilburg Casey R.Barrier MarkHorrocks Richard K.DunnfJosé MiguelRamírez-Aliaga

Journal of Archaeological Science
Volume 111, November 2019, 104994

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