Dental Plaque Sheds Light on Easter Island Mystery

The analysis of dental calculus, or fossilized dental plaque, can provide significant information about our past as well as clues about our future. Ancient dental plaque was recently used to uncover a mystery about the diet of native inhabitants of Easter Island.

The Palm Diet?

Monica Tromp, A PhD candidate from New Zealand’s University of Otago, and Dr. John Dudgeon of Idaho State University recently published the findings of new research into what plants residents of Easter Island—known to its Polynesian inhabitants as Rapa Nui—ate prior to contact with Europeans.

It was previously suggested that palm may have provided a staple plant food for Rapa Nui’s population for several hundred years, yet no other significant evidence supported that palm was a food source. In fact, evidence indicates the palm became extinct on the island soon after colonization around the 13th century.

In studying the dental calculus of 30 teeth found at various archaeological sites around the island, Tromp and Dr. Dudgeon found that most of the phytoliths, or plant microfossils, embedded in the fossilized plaque were from palm trees. But was the palm a direct component of diet?

Deeper into Dental Plaque

In further research, the findings of which were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the pair identified starch particles similar to modern sweet potatoes. The team found no evidence of bananas or other starchy plants thought to have been part of the diet of Rapa Nui’s ancient residents.

However, in testing new sweet potato skins grown in earth similar to that of Easter Island’s, Tromp and Dr. Dudgeon found that the skins seemed to absorb palm phytoliths from the soil. As Tromp stated, their research “bolsters the case for sweet potato as a staple and important plant food source for the islanders from the time the island was first colonized.”

Easter Island is famed for its mysterious series of more than 800 stone statues, or moai, which are thought to have been carved and placed by early Rapa Nui people. Easter Island is the most remote inhabited island in the world, and its Rapa Nui National Park is UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If you’re seeking a knowledgeable, friendly dentist in the Colorado Springs area, please contact The Studio for Exceptional Dentistry online or call us at 719-481-8250 to schedule your consultation with Dr. Andrew Hall.

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