Easter Island Inhabitants Ate Rats as Major Part of Their Diet
New research published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology has revealed that the indigenous population that once inhabited Easter Island, famous for its more than 1,000 ‘walking’ Moai statues, had a diet which included the Polynesian rat , also known as kiore, and which was strangely lacking in seafood.
The island, also called Rapa Nui, first settled around 1200 AD, is located in the South Pacific and is the most isolated inhabited landmass on Earth. It was expected that their diet would contain a lot of seafood as “traditionally, from Polynesian cultures you have a heavy predominance of using marine products, especially in the early phase of colonization," said Amy Commendador, of the Idaho Museum of Natural History at Idaho State University. However, this was not the case.
To determine the diet of its past inhabitants, the team of scientists analyzed the nitrogen and carbon isotopes from the teeth of 41 individuals whose skeletons had been previously excavated on the island. The researchers then compared the isotope values with those of animal bones excavated from the island. They also radiocarbon dated the teeth remains in order to see how the diet on the island changed over time.
They found that throughout time, the people on the island consumed a diet that was mainly terrestrial, and in the first few centuries of the island's history (up to about 1650 AD) Polynesian rats were the main source of protein. In fact, it is believed that the rats were transported to the island intentionally to use as food as they eat virtually anything, multiply rapidly and are said to be ‘very tasty’. This may also explain the lack of seafood in their diet as it may have been much easier to get a rat than it was to catch fish.
The northern end of Rapa Nui contains steep cliffs and would be very difficult to fish from. Additionally, the island’s southern end is somewhat cooler and may affect fishing. "Because of their geographic location and climate conditions, there just weren't as many marine products for them to get," Commendador said.
One curious coincidence is that most of the Moai, the statues erected by the islanders, face inland rather than out to sea. Now, this new research suggests the people of the island also turned inland, rather than to the sea, to get their food. The researchers do not think there is any direct relationship between the Moai statues and the islanders’ diet. However, it may reflect the fact that their lifestyle, beliefs, traditions and diet may have been focused on the land rather than the sea.