Easter Island, Chile

The Take-off and Fall of the Bird-Man Cult


sea ​​flight
Moa enters the shallow sea with open arms, in a pose evocative of the tangata manu cult
patch crater
The lush crater of extinct volcano Ranu Kao, in the extreme southwest of Rapa Nui and adjacent to Orongo.
manu rupestrian tango
Detail of a petroglyph from Mata Ngarau, drawn on one of the abundant basalt cliffs of Rapa Nui.
from the right angle
Easter Island visitor photographs one of Mata Ngarau's many petroglyphs.
nostalgic pride
Nativo Moa, makes a flag of the Rapa Nui nation wave.
the egg's journey
The rocks and petroglyphs of Mata Ngarau, the sacred core of Orongo. In the distance, the trio of islanders off Rapa Nui: Motu Nui, the largest, preceded by Motu Iti and the sharp Motu Kao Kao. It was at Motu Nui that participants in the tangata manu cult were to ac
Rapa Nui Christianity
Detail of the cemetery in Hanga Roa, the capital of Rapa Nui, with a combination of indigenous and Christian elements.
ceremonial shelters
Secular buildings in the village of Orongo, built to prepare for the competition, and to host the tangata manu rituals.
The factory
Half-buried moais in the Rano Raraku quarry, where the Rapa Nui natives made their gods out of stone.
divine line
glimpse of moai de ahu Tongariki, the largest formation on Easter Island.
Until the XNUMXth century, the natives of Easter Island they carved and worshiped great stone gods. All of a sudden, they started to drop their moai. The veneration of tanatu manu, a half-human, half-sacred leader, decreed after a dramatic competition for an egg.

The geological destiny and the recent Chilean colonial urbanization dictated that the most exuberant caldera on Easter Island was located in the southwest corner of its almost triangle.

In a verdant domain locked by the huge airport runway, below the capital Hanga Roa.

We had paid our tribute to most of the formations in moai who guarded the island and visited the Rano Raraku quarry where the natives once spawned them.

It was time to approach Ranu Kao and the nearby old village of Orongo, in order to investigate the cult of the bird-man.

The Dazzling Crater of Rano Kau

We got into the jeep we had been using for several days. We skirted the vast space of the airport.

We stop at the beginning of the trail that leads to the caldera of the extinct volcano, which has long been a lake whose surface is covered by a multicolored patchwork of green grass and dark water.

From the top of the shore, the scenery, rounded in front, sweeps us away.

Ranu Kao Crater, Easter Island, Rapa Nui

The lush crater of extinct volcano Ranu Kao, in the extreme southwest of Rapa Nui and adjacent to Orongo.

It was, by far, one of the most amazing views in all of Polynesia and the surrounding Pacific Ocean. We spent a good twenty minutes looking at it. Just after this time, it felt right to continue overboard towards the blue sea and Orongo.

The ruins of the ceremonial settlement were just around the corner. The absence of other people, a natural silence challenged by the wind, the diffused echo of the Pacific below and the occasional shriek of seabirds involved the walk and entry into the village with a mystery and solemnity that made us shiver.

Finally, we reached the section where the side of the caldera almost opened up to the ocean. At the eastern end of this kind of fault, we are confronted with a broad crust of buildings made of piled stones with the interior only accessible through tiny openings aligned along the grassy ground.

In front of the cluster, close to the village threshold and southwest of Rapa Nui, we find a rock formation full of intricate petroglyphs.

Even if the distant but rival vision of three islanders lost in the immensity of the ocean and the sky demanded our attention, we examined them carefully.

Mata Ngarau, Orongo, Easter Island/Rapa Nui

The rocks and petroglyphs of Mata Ngarau, the sacred core of Orongo. In the distance, the trio of islanders off Rapa Nui: Motu Nui, the largest, preceded by Motu Iti and the sharp Motu Kao Kao. It was at Motu Nui that participants in the tangata manu cult were to find the desired first egg of the year.

The wind was stronger there.

It made the vegetable green ripple at our feet and the endless azure navy blue. At the same time, it surrounded the islets with a pulsating white.

Our curiosity was stimulated as to what had led the Rapa Nui Indians to settle in those untamed confines of their island and to dig through the rocks with such dedication.

The Sudden Bankruptcy of God Make Make

As with everything related to Easter Island, the theme intrigues and fascinates a large community of historians, archaeologists and other scholars. Theories abound. Nor thorough explanations of these explanations.

In one thing, most of it seems to coincide: a new reality emerged shortly after the Rapa Nui indigenous people began to overthrow the moai that they had carved and erected before.

All of a sudden, Make Make, the supreme and omnipotent creator god, failed to protect the Rapa Nui people, unable to foresee the catastrophe that, with his blind faith in the supervision of the moai, ended up generating.

The trees on the island will have been almost all cut to serve as rollers and pulleys that allowed the complex movement of the moai from the quarry in which they were carved to the places destined for them. Without trees, the natives could no longer build boats and fish.

In a short time, they exterminated the island's chickens and related birds. Even seabirds will have become scarce, so rare that the natives have made them sacred.

Mata Ngarau, Orongo, Easter Island/Rapa Nui

Easter Island visitor photographs one of Mata Ngarau's many petroglyphs.

Terrestrial Solitude and due Religious Compensation

A Easter Island it is the most isolated place on earth. It is 1850km away from the closest islands of the Pacific, those of the archipelago, today, also Chilean of Juan Fernandez which is still 600km from the South American continent.

Now, in a society so alone and hoping for the benevolence of the supernatural, the emergence of the substitute cult of the moai, the tangata manu (bird man) did not wait.

In the 5th century, European navigators began to anchor in the island's inlets. The pioneer was the Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen, on April 1722, XNUMX, the Easter Sunday that would inspire the baptism of Rapa Nui.

In November 1770, the first Spanish navigators arrived and, four years later, the unavoidable Briton James Cook.

The Spanish diaries confirm that all the moai were standing. Already the records of James Cook, inform that some had been knocked down.

Tangata Manu: All Hope in a Bizarre Cult

Initially, the inhabitants of Rapa Nui were organized around a well-structured class system, with an ariki (supreme chief) above the heads of nine clans.

With its existence threatened by the lack of trees and food, a group of war leaders will have organized a kind of coup d'état.

Thus, they founded the new religion that worshiped Make Make and legitimized the Tangata Manu sub-cult.

Secular buildings in Orongo, Easter Island, Rapa Nui

Secular buildings in the village of Orongo, built to prepare for the competition, and to host the tangata manu rituals.

Thereafter, year after year, young warriors (hopus) from each clan were nominated by the ivi-attuas (shamans) of each rival clan to participate in a competition held from July to September.

Competitors began by focusing on the ravine caves in the extension of Ranu Kao crater.

From these caves, they would swim across the shark-infested sea to Motu Nui, the largest of the offshore islets, preceded by Motu Iti and the sharp Motu Kao Kao.

There, they awaited the arrival of the manutara, the dark terns that migrated annually from other parts of the Pacific to nest there.

Destiny Delivered to an Egg

The participant who collected his first egg, climbed to the supreme cliff of Motu Nui.

From the top, he shouted something like this to his shaman: “We have the egg, go shave your head”. Then, the defeated participants swam together back to the Rapa Nui base.

The lucky man returned alone from the islet, with the egg wrapped in a pile of long herbs tied over his head.

Afterwards, he still had to climb the sharp rocks that separated him from the heights of Orongo to deliver him to the respective ivi-attua.

petroglyph of Mata Ngarau, Easter Island/Rapa Nui

Detail of a petroglyph from Mata Ngarau, drawn on one of the abundant basalt cliffs of Rapa Nui.

The Tangata manu, the ivi-attua of the winning participant, was declared. Triumphant, this shaman then led a procession that crossed part of the island, to the area to which his clan belonged.

Three days after being harvested, the egg was poured, filled with vegetable fibers and placed on the shaved head of the Tangata Manu, painted white or red.

It would remain there for a year but, more important than the right to the ornament, the Tangata manu came to be considered tapu (sacred).

The Surreal Reign of Orongo

He received different tributes and food offerings. In fact, he won, for his clan, the right to control the distribution of the scarce resources of the island during the following year.

Of these resources, the crucial ones were the privilege of collecting the eggs laid by the birds in Motu Nui during five of the twelve months of its validity and residence in Orongo. In the remaining time, the Tangata manu remained in spiritual retreat in a building erected to welcome him.

The Orongo that we were examining and that we were studying the trio of islanders will have been erected as the official settlement of the event, which, with the ceremonial involved, lasted almost a month.

It served as the arrival point for a previous march of the participating clans starting in Mataveri, near the present airport.

With the race over, images of Make Make and the new tangata manu were engraved on the basalt rocks. At present, around 480 petroglyphs remain in Orongo and around.

Some rocks display images of birdmen. Others combine tangata manus with lines commemorating the god Make Make.

From the Fall of Tangata Manu to the Near Extinction of the Rapa Nui People

In addition to not alleviating the already long ordeal of the Rapa Nui people, the new cult collided with the obsession of European missionaries now installed on the island in converting the natives to Christianity. It was banned without appeal.

From the middle of the XNUMXth century onwards, incursions by slave traders from the coast of Peru became more and more frequent.

These raids, massive epidemics of tuberculosis, smallpox and other diseases brought by outsiders and deportations to other parts of the Pacific, caused a drastic decline in the island's population.

In 1871, out of many thousands (between 7 and 20.000 at the height of Rapa Nui), there were 111 indigenous people on the island. Cattle farmers bought much of the land from the long-deforested Rapa Nui, which started to serve as pasture for their ranches.

The New Chilean Reality

After 17 years, Easter Island was annexed by the Chile. The surviving natives were grouped in the area of ​​the present capital Hanga Roa. Only in 1966 were they granted Chilean citizenship.

The 2017 census registered 9400 citizens who considered themselves to be of Rapa Nui ethnicity, living a little across the long stretch of land. Chile. Even if the criterion is excessively ambiguous, Easter Island is home to 7700 inhabitants. Of these, 60% consider themselves to be descendants of the Easter Island aborigines.

Days after our incursion to Orongo, Moa – by far the most determined native we know on the island in recovering the Rapa Nui culture – carries out a series of prayers and rites, in front of the formations of moai, today, almost all rebuilt.

In one of those strange performances, covered only with a small waistband and a banner of the Rapa Nui nation tied to his right leg, he enters the shallow sea alongside one of the ahus.

Haughty, proud, he confronts the immensity of the Pacific Ocean with open arms in a pose symbolic of the nostalgic tangata manu.

Moa on a beach in Rapa Nui/Easter Island

Moa enters the shallow sea with open arms, in a pose evocative of the tangata manu cult.

Centuries passed. The vessels of European settlers anchored and set sail.

As much as it evokes the glorious history of its people, it hurts Moa the awareness that neither the creator god Make Make nor the successive Birdmen saved the fragile Rapa Nui civilization from the clutches of Western civilization.

More information about Rapa Nui – Easter Island on the respective page of UNESCO.

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