Easter Island discovery sends archaeologists back to drawing board

May 12, 2010

Archaeologists have disproved the fifty-year-old theory underpinning our understanding of how the famous stone statues were moved around Easter Island.

Fieldwork led by researchers at University College London and The University of Manchester, has shown the remote Pacific island's ancient road system was primarily ceremonial and not solely built for transportation of the figures.

A of roads up to 800-years-old crisscross the Island between the hat and statue quarries and the coastal areas.

Laying alongside the roads are dozens of the statues- or moai.

The find will create controversy among the many archaeologists who have dedicated years to finding out exactly how the moai were moved, ever since Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl first published his theory in 1958.

Heyerdahl and subsequent researchers believed that statues he found lying on their backs and faces near the roads were abandoned during transportation by the ancient Polynesians.

But his theory has been completely rejected by the team led by Manchester's Dr Colin Richards and UCL's Dr Sue Hamilton.

Instead, their discovery of stone platforms associated with each fallen moai - using specialist 'geophysical survey' equipment - finally confirms a little known 1914 theory of British archaeologist Katherine Routledge that the routes were primarily ceremonial avenues.

The statues, say the Manchester and UCL team just back from the island, merely toppled from the platforms with the passage of time.

"The truth of the matter is, we will never know how the statues were moved," said Dr Richards.

"Ever since Heyerdahl, archeologists have come up with all manner of theories - based on an underlying assumption that the roads were used for transportation of the moai, from the quarry at the volcanic cone Rano Raraku.

"What we do now know is that the roads had a ceremonial function to underline their religious and cultural importance.

"They lead - from different parts of the island - to the Rano Raraku volcano where the Moai were quarried.

"Volcano cones were considered as points of entry to the underworld and mythical origin land Hawaiki.

"Hence, Rano Ranaku was not just a quarry but a sacred centre of the island."

The previous excavation found that the roads are concave in shape -making it difficult to move heavy objects along them

And as the roads approach Rano Raraku, the statues become more frequent - which the team say, indicated an increasing grades of holiness.

"All the evidence strongly shows that these roads were ceremonial - which backs the work of Katherine Routledge from almost 100 years ago, " said Dr Sue Hamilton.

"It all makes sense: the moai face the people walking towards the volcano.

"The statues are more frequent the closer they are to the volcano - which has to be way of signifying the increasing levels of importance."

She added: "What is shocking is that Heyerdahl actually found some evidence to suggest there were indeed platforms.

"But like many other , he was so swayed by his cast iron belief that the roads were for transportation - he completely ignored them."

Explore further: Experts seek to save Haiti's archaeological sites (Update)

Related Stories

New clues in Easter Island hat mystery

Sep 07, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- A team of archaeologists has come one step closer to unravelling the mystery of how the famous statues dotting the landscape of a tiny Pacific island acquired their distinctive red hats.

New Easter Island theory presented

Dec 06, 2005

A University of Hawaii anthropologist and colleagues are blaming rats and Dutch traders for the mysterious abandonment of Easter Island.

Egypt announces find of ancient cat goddess temple

Jan 19, 2010

(AP) -- Archaeologists have unearthed a 2,000-year-old temple that may have been dedicated to the ancient Egyptian cat goddess, Bastet, the Supreme Council of Antiquities said Tuesday.

Recommended for you

Study claims cave art made by Neanderthals

8 hours ago

A series of lines scratched into rock in a cave near the southwestern tip of Europe could be proof that Neanderthals were more intelligent and creative than previously thought.

User comments : 7

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

lengould100
3.7 / 5 (6) May 12, 2010
So who's proved that the "ceremonial" roads were not also used to transport the moi? Their being concave might actually assist in maintaining direction of unattached rollers under the statues.
SteveL
3.3 / 5 (3) May 12, 2010
Or the roads could have been built for the moai initially, and hundreds of years of later ceremonial foot traffic may have worn down the middle of the roads.
PS3
2.3 / 5 (3) May 13, 2010
I thinks it's clear the aliens made them.
jknaak
1 / 5 (1) May 13, 2010
I see where they have evidence that the moai were intentionally placed along the road, but where is the evidence that the roads were used for ceremonial purposes. Why do we always assume that these "primitive" cultures only seem to accomplish anything for ceremony? It makes more sense to me that an advanced culture that can carve and transport these huge stones may have a bit more purpose and complexity than that.
frajo
1 / 5 (1) May 13, 2010
It makes more sense to me that an advanced culture that can carve and transport these huge stones may have a bit more purpose and complexity than that.
What exactly could that bit of more purpose have been? I can't imagine any practical need for roads there.
Skeptic_Heretic
3 / 5 (2) May 13, 2010
I'm not well studied in the inhabitants of E Island.

Did they have the wheel? Without the wheel, using roads for transportation is a fairly weak assumption as the purpose for roads within cultures with the wheel was to make the surface smooth for the wheel, not the traveler, like the phoenicians and etruscans. In cultures without the wheel, typically the roads are more ceremonial and not as robust or engineered, like the Olmecs.
shockr
not rated yet May 23, 2010
It was placed there by alien gods. It's just a bit of art. The residents tried to give it a go, to copy their 'gods'.. but failed miserably. The island is too small to support the manpower required to actually build these things. They'd have to be working for centuries. Which would mean that several generations would have to dedicate thier lives to it. And you still need others to hunt, cook, raise children etc.. sorry.. no native civilisation built these.