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New and Surprising Discoveries about Mysterious Easter Island Statue: Origin of the Birdman Cult

New and Surprising Discoveries about Mysterious Easter Island Statue: Origin of the Birdman Cult

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First Posted: Apr 11, 2013 01:11 PM EDT
Easter Island Statue
Scientists have taken a closer look at the people of Easter Island and have found that they may have made their way from their home to the Americas long before the Dutch commander Jakob Roggeveen arrived with his ships in 1722. (Photo : Flickr/David Berkowitz)

Archaeologists have made some new and surprising discoveries about the mysterious statue from the Easter Island. Using the latest in digital imaging technology, they were able to find a little bit more about the religion that precipitated the downfall of these giant statues.

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The Easter Island statue Hoa Hakananai'a is impressive to look at. Standing at about eight feet high, its solemn expression stares out onto visitors in the British Museum in London. While its front is smoothly carved, though, its back is another case entirely. It's grooved and pitted with multiple depictions of birdmen, figures which arose during a time when the people of Easter Island gave up worshipping statues and instead turned to the birdman cult.

Around 1600 AD, the Rapa Nui, the people inhabiting the Easter Islands, faced an ecological crisis. They stopped worshipping their iconic statues and instead turned to the new birdman religion. This cult included a ritual that was based around collecting the first egg of migrating terns from a nearby islet. The first swimmer who was able to gather the egg and bring it back safely would achieve sacred status for a year.

In fact, Hoa Hakananai'a most likely represents a time when the Rapa Nui were slowly adopting the new religion. Its back is carved with images that reveal some insights into the cult. Yet before now, researchers have had trouble deciphering the depictions.

The researchers took hundreds of photos of the statue from different angles. They then created a fully textured computer model of the statue, capable of rotating 360 degrees. Then, they used a virtual light source which was moved across the surface of the digital image of the statue. This allowed the researchers to view unseen details.

So what exactly did the researchers find? They noted that two birdmen on the back of the statue were actually marked as male and female. This allowed them to unlock an entire narrative story relating to the birdman cult. The scene shows a male chick leaving the nest, watched by its half-bird, half-human parents. The female birdman is matched by the female komari on the right ear of the statue, while the male birdman is matched on the left with a paddle--a symbol of male authority.

In addition to this narrative, the researchers also found that the statue was not placed on a stone base by the shore, as previously thought.

"Study of the tapering base suggests that rather than being the result of thinning to make it fit into a pit, as often suggested, it is more likely part of the original boulder or outcrop from which it was carved," said Mike Pitts, one of the researchers, in a press release. "This may also explain why, as we now see it in the British Museum, it appears to lean slightly to the left-its uneven end resulted in its being incorrectly set into its 19th century plinth."

The study was conducted by researchers from the Archaeological Computing Research Group at the University of Southampton and the editor of British Archaeology.

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