Located off the coast of Chile, the survival story of early inhabitants on the tiny volcanic island of Rapa Nui has long alluded archaeologists. Now, a team of researchers believes they’ve uncovered how the ancient island population – between 15,000 and 20,000 at its peak – were able to maintain their society for centuries in the absence of an adequate supply of fresh water, and what led them to famously construct hundreds of massive statues known as moai.
An 18th-century account of European first contact with the Pacific Islanders detailed natives being able to drink seawater without harm – a feat we all know is impossible today (the human body cannot process high concentrations of seawater, eventually killing a person through dehydration). By 1887, the local population of Easter Island dropped to just 110 largely due to slave trading and disease, decimating any chance of uncovering the people’s oral history.
A team of researchers conducted two field surveys across the island. With the exception of two difficult-to-access lakes and a stream that often turns to a wetland bog, they found that Easter Island does not have a substantial source of freshwater.
"The porous volcanic soils quickly absorb rain, resulting in a lack of streams and rivers," said study author Carl Lipo in a statement.
So the team turned to the 4-meter-tall (13-feet) statues situated along the coast for guidance.