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You are here: Home / Library / RBINS Staff Publications 2016 / The impact of gender, age, social status and spatial distribution on the ancient Easter Islanders’ diet.

Caroline Polet (ed.) (2016)

The impact of gender, age, social status and spatial distribution on the ancient Easter Islanders’ diet.

Société préhistorique française, Paris, vol. 7.

Abstract: Easter Island (or Rapa Nui), famous worldwide for its gigantic stone statues, is the most isolated inhabited island in the Pacific. Yet the history of its inhabitants has been far from peaceful: they have faced deforestation, slave raids, epidemics and colonialism. This paper aims to study the diet of the ancient Easter Islanders and focuses on dietary reconstruction through the analysis of human teeth and bones, more particularly, on the impact of gender, age, social status and spatial distribution. However, retrieving information on their dietary habits is difficult, due to the absence of written archives and the disappearance of most of the bearers of the indigenous culture during the slave raids and epidemics of the nineteenth century. Therefore our primary source of direct information are food remains (animal bones and plant remnants) and human bones. The individuals studied came from twenty sites, which date mainly from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The greater part had been buried in monuments (funerary stone platforms called ahu), or caves. These individuals are currently stored at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and the Father Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum of Easter Island. Dietary reconstruction is based on stress indicators, dental microwear and stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses. Stress indicators are skeletal markers which reveal poor living conditions during growth. Two indicators were studied: dental enamel hypoplasia (localised defects in the tooth crown generally expressed in the form of horizontal depressions) and cribra orbitalia(porotic lesions in the bony orbital roof). Dental microwear is the study of the microscopic features that form on the teeth’s surfaces as a result of use. Their density, dimensions, and orientation are a direct result of diet. Stable isotope analyses are based on the fact that the isotopic composition of an individual’s tissues is determined by the proportion of the various foods consumed. Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope composition were analysed in the bone collagen. Dental microwear patterns indicated a large proportion of tubers in the Easter islanders’ diet. Additionally, the stable isotopes showed that, on average, one third of the dietary proteins were of marine origin and that children were breastfed until three years of age. Stress indicators suggest that infantile malnutrition was not severe. Our results also demonstrated gender disparity in access to food resources. Furthermore, the isotopic signatures clustered according to the place of burial (ahu), indicating family dietary specificities. Finally, our study revealed the influence of social status on food intake: individuals from Ahu Nau Nau, which is said to be the royal ahu, displayed the highest value of nitrogen and carbon isotopes and the lowest number of microwear features. A greater consumption of marine products may explain this distinction.
International Redaction Board, RBINS Collection(s)
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