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Early Easter Islanders Ate Rats—Lots of Rats

Perhaps the lack of fish food even explains the orientation of Easter Island's famous statues, which face inwards toward the islanders' food source

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Easter Islanders aren’t the only ones who enjoy a tasty rat, as shown by this Thai food stall. Photo: Nicolai Bangsgaard

Easter Island is located smack in the middle of the South Pacific, so it’s easy to imagine that its former residents would have eaten a lot of fish. But recent archeological research says that’s not right. Ancient Easter Islanders, it turns out,  ate a lot rat meat.

An analysis of 41 skeletons, the International Business Times reports, revealed this culinary trend. The researchers used radiocarbon in the skeletons’ teeth to date them, and search carbon and nitrogen isotopes for signals of the food group these people had eaten most often. Rats, chickens and crops such as yams, sweet potatoes and bananas were the main items on the menu, the researchers say.

The rats may have inadvertently arrived with the first settlers, Discovery writes, or they could have been intentionally transported there as a readily available food source. The researchers were most surprised by the lack of seafood, especially given that most Polynesian cultures are seafood fans.

One reason for the lack of seafood may have to do with the island’s location and topography, Commendador said. The northern end contains steep cliffs and would be difficult to fish from. Additionally, the island’s southerly latitude makes it somewhat cooler and may affect fishing. “Because of their geographic location and climate conditions, there just weren’t as many marine products for them to get,” Commendador said.

Another possibility the team raises in their paper is that access to marine resources varied due to the social and political constraints people faced. For the islanders, eating fish might have been a mark of “higher status” individuals, an elite person who was allowed more plentiful access to seafood.

Perhaps the lack of fish food even explains the orientation of Easter Island’s famous statues, the authors speculate. The statues face inwards rather than outwards, Discovery says, maybe all the better to spot those tasty four-legged rodents.

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