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Binghamton University researchers have found that Easter Island’s moai statues were built close to sources of fresh water. A new study adds weight to the idea that communities competed through monument building, not violence.

There’s always something new that research can reveal, even in parts of the world that seem to have been endlessly studied.

Consider this report on the Easter Island statues by Nicola Davis at the Guardian. “The huge stone figures of Easter Island have beguiled explorers, researchers and the wider world for centuries, but now experts say they have cracked one of the biggest mysteries: why the statues are where they are.

“Researchers say they have analysed the locations of the megalithic platforms, or ahu, on which many of the statues known as moai sit, as well as scrutinising sites of the island’s resources, and have discovered the structures are typically found close to sources of fresh water. …

“ ‘What is important about it is that it demonstrates the statue locations themselves are not a weird ritual place – [the ahu and moai] represent ritual in a sense of there is symbolic meaning to them, but they are integrated into the lives of the community,’ said Prof Carl Lipo from Binghamton University in New York, who was co-author of the research. …

“It is thought the monuments represent ancestors and were linked to ritual activity, forming a focal point for communities, but the reason for their locations was previously a mystery. … The team focused on the east of the island, where various resources have been well mapped …

“After finding no link to the proximity of rock used for tools or for the monuments, they looked at whether the ahu were found near other important resources: gardens spread with stones in which crops like sweet potatoes were grown, sites linked to fishing, and sources of fresh water. The island has no permanent streams, and there is little evidence that residents relied on the island’s lakes.

“However, fresh water passes through the ground into aquifers, seeping into caves as well as emerging around the coast. … The results of the new research, published in the journal Plos One, reveal proximity to freshwater sites is the best explanation for the ahu locations – and explains why they crop up inland as well as on the coast.

“ ‘The exceptions to the rule about being at the coast where water comes out actually are met by the fact there is also water there – it is found through cave locations,’ said Lipo, adding historic wells were found to explain some ahu locations apparently without fresh water. …

“He says the study also adds weight to the idea that communities competed and interacted through monument building, in contrast to the idea that islanders engaged in lethal violence over scarce natural resources – something Lipo says there is little evidence for. …

“And community and cooperation, stresses Lipo, were crucial in construction of the monuments. ‘Anything that brings you together is going to make you stronger and allow you to survive,’ he said. ‘I think that is the secret to Easter Island.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

Photo: Joe Carter/British Ministry of Defence
A moai stone statue at the Hanga Roa quarry, Easter Island.

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Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has just published a book recounting his efforts to apply the principals of his discipline to improving urban life.

The book is called The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time, and it sounds cool.

Mark Oppenheimer writes in the NY Times:

“For years the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson paid little attention to Binghamton, N.Y., where he lived and taught. ‘I hadn’t joined the PTA,’ he writes, ‘attended council meetings, given blood, or served turkey to the homeless on Thanksgiving.’ …

Photographer: Jonathan Cohen

“Five years ago Mr. Wilson, the author of two popular books about Darwin, decided it would be fruitful to apply his training to the (human) animals closer to home. With colleagues at Binghamton University, Mr. Wilson founded the Binghamton Neighborhood Project to use evolutionary theory, along with data collection, to improve the quality of life in his struggling city.”

Although the work is still — evolving — the people he works with make interesting reading as do the experiments.

Oppenheinmer says that the “best chapters describe some of the preliminary work Mr. Wilson’s team has done. For example the Project gave a wide cross section of Binghamton schoolchildren the Development Assessment Profile, a survey that measures sociability, citizenship skills and the conditions that promote such traits. Students rated their agreement with statements like ‘I think it is important to help other people’ and ‘I tell the truth even when it is not easy.’

“The project then figured out where the most trusting, pro-social children lived: which neighborhoods, in other words, seemed to be breeding the most social capital. Using the technology on which Google Earth relies, the project created a krig map — a topographical map representing demographic data — for the city. The valleys showed areas with low social capital, the peaks with high.”

The results have implications for where community-building intiatives might have the most impact. Read the whole review here.

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