Notable: Water shaped the moai placement on Rapa Nui

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Notable paper: DiNapoli RJ, Lipo CP, Brosnan T, Hunt TL, Hixon S, Morrison AE, et al. (2019) Rapa Nui (Easter Island) monument (ahu) locations explained by freshwater sources. PLoS ONE 14(1): e0210409. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0210409

Synopsis: DiNapoli and coworkers show that the monumental platforms on Rapa Nui (often known as Easter Island) are distributed around the island in ways that relate to freshwater seeps, which are important water sources. By contrast, they do not correspond as well to other important resources on the island including gardens and marine foraging locations.

Interesting because: Construction of monuments by all kinds of ancient people was an incredibly important social activity. The placement of monuments may tell us about social ideology or relationships; or alternatively it may reflect more prosaic environmental issues that had importance to ancient lifeways—in this case, the availability of water.

Evolutionary connections: This might just seem like common sense. But it’s often not so easy to demonstrate common sense in the archaeological record. The location of monuments on Rapa Nui illustrates how it can be difficult to get at the interaction of local environmental variation and ancient human behavior. Our cultures tend to adapt us to environments, and environments will have echoes on many behaviors that can be examined with archaeology. But understanding how environment shaped behavior, and how the ideologies and cultures of people were products of environment, requires mapping well-documented manifestations of behavior at a scale large enough that environments substantially varied in the past. From this kind of example, it is possible to see how to build better “social landscape” maps in prehistoric environments.