Associated Press
In this Feb. 2007 file photo, giant volcanic rock statues called Moais are shown on Easter Island in the South Pacific. Easter Island is Earth's most remote inhabited land, a South Pacific speck of volcanic rock so isolated the locals call it "Te Pito O Te Henua," or "The Navel of the World."

SALT LAKE CITY — Scientists say they may have figured out why Easter Island’s mysterious statues are there.

Researchers published a study in PLOS One that says the stone statues dotted throughout the island might have been a tool used to point out where people could find drinkable water.

The study says the statues were constructed in locations near fresh water.

Why it matters: “The discovery could give scientists further insight into the little-known civilization that inhabited the island, including how they survived in an under-resourced environment,” according to Time magazine.

Expert voices: Carl Lipo, professor of anthropology at Binghamton University and a co-author on the research, told The Guardian that these locations are not specifically for rituals.

  • “What is important about it is that it demonstrates the statue locations themselves are not a weird ritual place,” he said.
  • He said the statues were “integrated into the lives of the community.”

Context: As CNN reported, Polynesian seafarers arrived on the island Rapa Nui, which is about 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile, 900 years ago. After they arrived, they built close to 1,000 statues (called “moai”) that stood on 300 different platforms for those statues (known as “ahu”)

Method: The researchers examined 93 different ahu to determine their “spatial distribution” and how it could connect to “resources thought to be the focus of competition in precontact times,” according to Time magazine.

3 comments on this story
  • The researchers found that ahu were near underground aquifers and locations where there was fresh groundwater running into the ocean. Some of that water was deemed drinkable.
  • “Every time we saw massive amounts of fresh water, we saw giant statues,” Lipo said. “It was ridiculously predictable.”

Bigger picture: The statues' locations could hint at societal life for those living on Easter Island.

  • “The theory accounts for why ahu are found in both coastal and inland areas,” according to Time. “The authors suggested that the size of the moai and ahu could even have indicated the quantity and quality of water at a site, demonstrating competition between settlements, or a vital signpost that could have proved lifesaving.”