Origins of Easter Island’s First Inhabitants Remains Mysterious

Kamie Berry | October 13th, 2017

Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is one of the most mysterious places on earth. The tiny, isolated island, with a total area of only 64 square miles and over 1100 miles away from any other inhabited area, is perhaps best-known for its giant statues. These statues, known as moai, are themselves a mystery. No one has yet figured out how such a small and isolated group of people, with few natural resources, managed to construct these fantastic sculptures.

Another mystery surrounding the island is the origin of its inhabitants. For many years, anthropologists and other researchers have believed that the people of Easter Island intermixed with people from South America some time before Europeans first arrived on the island in the 1700s. A genetic study done in 2014 had indicated that this was possible, and it provided an answer for the origin of the statues: there had been a cultural exchange between the Easter Islanders and South American peoples that had given them the technological know-how to construct the moai.

A new DNA study, conducted on three Easter Islander skeletons from the 1400s and 1500s and two from the 1800s, cast this theory of intermingling in doubt. There was no evidence that there was any kind of migration or interbreeding between the two groups of people before the arrival of Europeans. Therefore, it is almost impossible that the people of the Easter Islands had any significant cultural exchange with the Native Americans of South America that would have contributed to the creation of their mysterious statues. Any exchange the groups might have had would have been rare.

The study found only evidence of Polynesian DNA in the skeletons that were dated to before 1722. More modern inhabitants of Easter Island, though, have a mix of Polynesian, European, and South American ancestry based on DNA samples. The team who conducted the research did admit that their sample size was too small to be the definitive answer to question of the origin of the island’s earliest inhabitants. But their findings do fit in with the fact that there is very little other evidence of South American influence in the pre-contact culture of the island.

If the inhabitants were Polynesian, they were certainly an impressive people, since they would have had to travel over 100 miles over open ocean to reach the island. That would have been a fantastic feat in the boats that would have been available to them. The researchers hope to uncover more secrets in the DNA of the Rapa Nui people in the future.

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