The collapse of the Easter Island’s civilization is often used as a cautionary tale to show the folly of humans who over exploit their surroundings, but scientists have now discovered what allowed the ancient inhabitants to flourish in the first place.
Tiny plant fossils preserved in the dental plaque on teeth found among human remains on the remote Pacific island have revealed what the doomed civilisation ate – sweet potato.
Scientists found starch grains from the popular tuber embedded in the hardened plaque from a selection of teeth from inhabitants of the island between the 14th and end of the 19th century.
They claim that the starchy, sweet tasting vegetable formed the predominant part of the islander’s diet and was also a major source of water for them.
They believe the original Polynesian settlers brought the vegetable with them when they first arrived on Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is also known, sometime before the 1200 AD.
However, the study may also help to explain what led to the ultimate downfall of the civilisation that once flourished on Easter Island.
It is thought that the flourishing Rapa Nui civilisation, which numbered more than 15,000 at its peak, destroyed the trees that covered the island, leading to wars over dwindling resources.
Grains of silica from the palm trees that were once common over the island were found in the dental plaque of the ancient inhabitants, leading to claims that they had used them for food.