A recent study analyzed the starch residues found on obsidian tools from the oldest strata at the Anakena site in Rapa Nui (Easter Island), dated between 1000 and 1300 AD. The results provide interesting evidence about the diet and crops of the island’s early inhabitants, as well as evidence of contact between South American natives and the early Polynesian settlers.

The analysis identified 46 starch grains from 20 obsidian tools, including species of plants traditionally cultivated in Polynesia, such as yam (Dioscorea alata) and taro (Colocasia esculenta). But the most surprising findings were species not previously reported in Rapa Nui, such as breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), Tahitian apple (Spondias dulcis), and ginger (Zingiber officinale).

Even more interesting was the discovery of South American species, such as arrowroot (Canna sp.), sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), and cassava (Manihot esculenta). These results constitute the earliest evidence of the cultivation of these foods in the Pacific, suggesting direct contact between the early inhabitants of Rapa Nui and South American populations.

The presence of breadfruit, Tahitian apple, and ginger is an unexpected finding, as these crops were not considered part of the originally introduced foods on the island. Breadfruit, in particular, is a key species in Polynesian agriculture, but there was no record of its cultivation in Rapa Nui. The authors suggest that perhaps this species thrived during the early stages of colonization but later disappeared due to climate change.

Regarding South American crops such as arrowroot, sweet potato, and cassava, they were not considered part of Rapa Nui’s pre-Hispanic diet, and it was thought that they were introduced in more recent historical times. However, their presence in the earliest strata of the Anakena site suggests that they were brought by the early settlers, probably on return trips from South America.

This provides concrete evidence of contact between Polynesian and South American populations in pre-Hispanic times. While the exact timing of these contacts remains debated, the authors suggest that they were not isolated or fortuitous encounters but rather sustained interactions, where knowledge and resources were shared between both regions.

The study of starch microfossils in archaeological tools has been key to reconstructing the diet and agriculture of Rapa Nui’s early inhabitants. Until now, available evidence suggested that their menu was limited to traditional Polynesian crops, but this new work shows that the range of foods was much more varied.

These findings provide a more comprehensive understanding of the subsistence practices of Rapa Nui’s early societies and open new perspectives on the links that may have been established between Pacific and South American populations in pre-Hispanic times. Future studies expanding the analysis to other species from both regions will help deepen this line of research.

The researchers conclude that the use of common words in South American and Polynesian languages, such as “kumara” for sweet potato and others unrelated to plants, suggests sustained (and at least partially peaceful) interactions. Our results show that the menu of the early travelers and colonizers who lived at the Anakena site was much more varied than supposed.

Their basic food menu included not only traditional plants from Polynesian canoes but also several native South American tubers. This study also provides independent support for the general conclusions reached by recent studies of human genetics, indicating direct contact between Pacific populations and individuals from northern South America.


Sources

Berenguer P, Clavero C, Saldarriaga-Córdoba M, Rivera-Hutinel A, Seelenfreund D, Martinsson-Wallin H, et al. (2024) Identification of breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) and South American crops introduced during early settlement of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), as revealed through starch analysis. PLoS ONE 19(3): e0298896. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0298896


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