According to Polynesian legend, the stone monoliths of Easter Island were put into place by a king who invoked divine power to command the statues to walk.
Archaeologists have long preferred the more prosaic theory that they were heaved into position along a network of purpose-built tracks.
But the first British archaeological expedition in nearly a century to the archipelago, whose giant artefacts have long baffled academics and explorers, has arrived at a conclusion which threatens to overturn a 50-year-old consensus about the role played by the island's ancient road system.
The team, from London and Manchester, travelled to the island off Chile to examine the toppled minimalist statues which researchers have long believed were abandoned on the roadside during failed attempts to haul them from inland quarries to their final vantage points overlooking the coast.
There are about 1000 statues, most on platforms on the island's perimeter, with others inland in a seemingly random fashion.
The theory about these inland rock effigies, which are known as moai and weigh up to 86 tonnes each, was first outlined in 1958 by the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who suggested that the ancient Polynesians simply left the broken statues beside the track and they served no spiritual purpose.
But evidence from the researchers, from University College London and Manchester University, has upset this convention after high-tech equipment discovered that, far from being the detritus of clumsy construction workers, each of the tumbled statues had a stone platform and would have had pride of place on the road system as part of a religious avenue.
The discovery confirms the findings of the last British archaeologist to work on the island, Katherine Routledge, in 1914, and suggests that rather than serving solely as a transport route for coast-bound statues, the system of tracks criss-crossing the archipelago had a more complex role.
Dr Sue Hamilton, of UCL, said: "Ever since Heyerdahl, it has been assumed that the roads were used for transportation and little else. But what we know now is that the roads very much had a ceremonial function and the quarry was where the islanders would go because it was a sacred centre.
"The statues by the roadside were not abandoned. They had individual platforms and faced in towards the road. We think it is beyond doubt that they were intended to stand where they were found."