Easter Island: water sanctuary discovered

Cymbals and canals at a waterfall could have served ritual purposes

Easter Island is famous for its stone figures, but there is still much to be learned about the culture of its builders. © Ian Sewell / CC-by-sa 3.0
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Holy Water: Archaeologists have discovered a water and fertility shrine of the Rapa Nui on Easter Island. It consists of several basins, canals and a processional road, which connect to a waterfall - and once served apparently ritual purposes. Which rituals took place here exactly is still puzzling.

Huge stone heads with big noses and long ears look towards the arriving: the monumental Moais of Easter Island are as world-famous as they are mysterious. It is still unclear what the former inhabitants of the remote volcanic island in the South Pacific built these stone statues - and otherwise many details about the life of the Rapa Nui are still in the dark.

New insights into the cultural traditions of Easter Island residents now provide surprising archeological finds. Burkhard Vogt from the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin and his colleagues uncovered artificial canals and water basins at the Ava Ranga Uka a Toroke Hau site, which immediately adjoin a three-meter-high waterfall.

Drone image of the northern section of the site with a waterfall and paved monumental terraces © Chr. Hartl-Reiter / DAI

Religiously sanctioned

The basins built of rubble and boulders come from different periods and phases of construction - their layout varies from rectangular to trapezoidal to irregular. The interesting thing is that, apparently, the Rapa Nui once moved vast amounts of rock and gravel to cover older basins, as well as canals with monumental terraces. Why this effort?

"The terraces seem to seal the previous installations and exclude them from further use, " the archaeologists write. In their view, this could mean that the access to the water of the waterfall and the associated creek was sanctioned socially and religiously and regulated by taboos. After all, fresh water on the island in the midst of the Pacific has always been a valuable asset and easily accessible water reservoirs rare. display

Ritual paintings

This thesis is supported by a kind of processional path that Vogt and his team discovered. This paved path leads out of the valley from the waterfall, passing the well-known ceremonial platform Ahu Hanuanua mea with its single moai at a distance of over 15 meters. "This underpins our assumption that such paths did not serve to transport the monumental statues, but rather as a processional road, which in this case began at the waterfall, " they write.

And there is another reason for the ritual significance of the now uncovered facilities: Only recently, several mines were discovered at the site where the inhabitants of Easter Island produced local pigments. It is known that the color red on the Easter Island was once sacred it represented spiritual power, physical strength and fertility.

Rain and fertility magic

Together with the fact that lakes, wells and springs in the Polynesian culture are the seat of gods and ghosts, the team of archaeologists concludes that the canals and pools discovered at the waterfall were once part of a water and fertility sanctuary. Here, ritual actions could have taken place, which on the one hand cause a rain spell but on the other hand should also increase human fertility.

How exactly these rituals were accomplished and what function the water basins fulfilled is still enigmatic. However, the researchers hope that further investigations will provide insights into the early use of the sanctuary in the future. (iDAI Publications, 2018; e-Research Report)

(German Archological Institute, 22.11.2018 - DAL)