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Fossil plant remains at Rano Raraku, Easter Island’s statue quarry: Evidence for past elevated lake level and ancient Polynesian agriculture

by Mark Horrocks last modified 2012-11-20 01:41 PM

Horrocks M, Baisden WT, Flenley J, Feek D, González Nualart L, Haoa-Cardinali S, Edmunds Gorman T. 2012. Journal of Paleolimnology 48, 767-783.


Previous paleoenvironmental records from the lake of Rano Raraku crater, Easter Island’s statue quarry, showed evidence of two major environmental changes, fluctuating lake levels and Polynesian forest clearance. There have been no reports, however, of former shorelines and it is not known if deforestation of the crater was for quarrying alone, or also for agriculture. We shed light on this by examining macrofossil casts of plants found in dryland iron pan deposits, and using combined analyses of pollen, phytoliths and starch in a lake sediment core and dryland soil profile.

Casts of wetland taxa, namely Scirpus californicus and fern rhizomes, were identified in the iron pan deposits up to ~10 m above the current lake level, providing evidence of higher lake level during the last Glacial period. This height is near the level of the col on the western side of the crater, indicating that the lake was at its maximum possible elevation at the time, with overflow via the col. Microfossils of introduced Colocasia esculenta (taro), Ipomoea batatas (sweet potato), Musa (banana sp.) and possibly Lagenaria siceraria (bottle gourd) were identified in the core and soil profile, providing evidence of ancient Polynesian agriculture. Earliest evidence of gardening occurs at ~627-513 cal BP, immediately after large-scale forest clearance. The core and soil profile were located on opposite sides of the catchment, suggesting that the crater was intensively multi-cropped and that widespread irrigated gardens co-existed with statue-quarrying activity.


Fossil rhizome casts, pollen, phytoliths, starch, late Quaternary, agriculture, Easter Island.

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