Ancient Watercourse Constructions for Ritual Purposes

In 2007 an expedition led by Burkhardt Vogt, under the direction of the German Archaeological Institute, found a natural pond that measures 80 meters in length and 50 meters high, which empties into the vale at Vaipu halfway up the Terevaka hill. It has a bed made of worked stones, called “Paenga” by the old people, through which  the 1000 mm of anual rainfall that was normal in this part of the island could flow. This construction made by the ancient Rapanui people left many unknowns related to its practical and ritual uses. It suggests that in the past the Island was exposed to occasional droughts that alternated with periods of abundant rainfall. The excavations continued in 2008 and 2010.

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According to legend, little “Uka”, the daughter of “Toroke Hau”, died when she drowned in a gully in this sector.  Her parents had gone to a feast, leaving her home alone, when a sudden flood washed away the house and the girl.  From there came the name which means, “gully in which the girl Uka , daughter of Toroke Hau, was floating”.  This was one of several gullies which descend along the vale in a northeastern and southeastern direction and were probably the only permanent water flows on the Island.

The scientists noted that the terrain suggested the presence of two dikes set one after the other as in a cascade, which formed barriers across the width of the vale to slow the force of the water as it descended. They also found remains of constructions, which were posible retaining walls for the banks and terraces.  Some small openings found in the covering of the dikes, combined with heavy sediments behind them, leads them to believe that, since the dike was built, there were periods of uninterrupted heavy rains which caused a rapid sedimentation and gave the builders no time to properly fill them. In addition, two thin layers of finer sediments indicate that there were also periods of prolonged drought.

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Other discoveries indicate the presence of human settlements to the west of the rivulet, on the border of the gully, since traces of foundations of typical houses and holes for plantings were found. There are also the remains of a destroyed Ahu (ceremonial platform) with a fallen Moai (statue), which according to oral tradition was called “Ahu Hanuanuamea” or ahu of the rainbow.

During the excavations in 2008, a rectangular pool was found, with interior dimensions of 5 m by 2.75 m and an average depth of 1.5 m.  It was built of eleven “Paenga” stones and located some 50 m above the first dike.  Due to its location within the bed of the gully, it would seem to have once been used for water control.  In the base of the pool, they found a large quantity of organic material, such as bits of wood and twigs, vegetable fibers, compressed leaves and shells of the nut from the Chilean palm (Jubaea chilensis), abundant on Rapa Nui in ancient times.   Markings on the shells were determined to be from gnawing by rats which had been introduced by the Rapanui when they colonized the Island.  In the fill within the pool, there was also a large amount of accumulated utensils made of obsidian, basalt and wood.  When they were subjected to Carbon-14 testing, the age was surprising, as they were dated between the 16th and 17th Centuries.

The existence of a cult of water has not been proven until now, but can be supposed from local legends such as that of “Ava Ranga Uka”.  The Pre-Christian god of rain, Hiro, was one of the most important divinities of the Rapanui pantheon.  He was in charge of the fertility of the fields and orchards, as well as of the humans. One of the offerings that was used to invoke him was a piece of coral which was still wet and covered with algae which would be buried to make Hiro “cry his long tears”.  In this excavation, several pieces of coral were found in the cavity of the reservoir behind the first dike, indicating that this ritual had been held in this sector.  To that can be added the discovery of three petroglyphs carved into the base of the pool which represent a human foot, a fish or a dolphin, as well as a design of curved lines which represent a boat.

The young Rapanui anthropologist, Merahi López-Atan, who was invited to participate in the German excavations, commented that : “Obviously the reason for this site was to retain water although we don’t yet know why.  There may be many possible hypotheses. One is that it could perfectly have been a ritual site.  Another idea is that, due to the velocity of the wáter when it flows, these were built to stop the flow in the pool to let it decant for clean wáter.”   At this time, the site has been reburied to protect it, but work will be resumed in the middle of this year.

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