Tag: Rapa Nui

The Birdman Competition – “The Hunger Games” of Rapa Nui

The Birdman Competition – “The Hunger Games” of Rapa Nui

Many of us are familiar with “The Hunger Games” – we’ve either read the books or watched the movies, or both, or maybe just heard of them from our friends. The idea of “The Huger Games” is that in order to maintain peace in a futuristic society, they would host an annual competition where each district would chose a competitor (a tribute) to fight in the games. The winner, the only survivor of the games, would then become the victor and would become famous and highly praised.

You would think that’s a cruel way to keep peace and might think that’s just a book or a movie, but what if I told you that reality is closer to it than you might have imagined? I traveled to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to see the moai and to learn more about them – why did the Rapa Nui people build the moai and how did they transport them all over the island. I did get to learn all about the moai, and thanks to an enthusiastic local guide who loves her island and her culture I learned so much more! She introduced me to a whole new aspect of Rapa Nui history that was not familiar to me: the birdman cult.

After a period of wars and constant fighting between clans there was a substantial decrease in population. This was due to the killings between clans in combat or cannibalism, where captured people from one clan served as food for the capturing clan. To save the population from extinction, the chiefs of clans found a way to stop the killings and make peace on the island – the birdman competition.

So what is the birdman cult and the birdman competition?

The birdman cult revolves, not surprisingly, as the name suggests, around a bird. More specifically, the bird was the manutara bird, or the sooty tern. In the Rapa Nui culture the manutara bird was often associated with the gods. So a connection to the bird would mean a connection to the gods and the one who would have this connection would become the ruler of the island for a whole year. But how did they establish this connection?

View of the Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao Kao islands from Rapa Nui.
View of the Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao Kao islands from Rapa Nui.

Every Spring the manutara bird came and lay its egg on the Motu Nui island, the largest of the three small islands off the south-west coast of Rapa Nui (picture above). The birdman competition took place every year around the arrival of the manutara bird. What the competitors had to do sounds pretty simple – get the egg of the bird and bring it back to the chief of his clan. Once the clan chief received the egg he became the ruler of the island for one year, until the next competition.

Things are never as easy as we hope they would be. Each clan chief had his designated competitor. He would choose a competitor who was well fit with great strength and courage. Oftentimes the competitors trained from a very young age to be able to compete in the birdman competition.

Rano Kau volcano where the birdman competition started.
Rano Kau volcano where the birdman competition started.

Before the manutara bird arrived, the competitors gathered at the Orongo village, close to the Rano Kau volcano (picture above). There, when the competition started the competitors had to climb down the volcano cliff to reach the water. They started their descent from the lower edge of the volcano cliff, noticeable in above picture. They had to climb down an almost vertical cliff of about 300 meters. Then, they had to swim for almost two km from Rapa Nui to Motu Nui in waters with strong currents and sharks. And, as if mother nature didn’t offer enough obstacles, they also had to be constantly on the lookout for the other competitors who might try to kill them at any moment to get rid of their competition.

Once they reached Motu Nui they still had quite a few challenges awaiting. Whoever survived the trip had to hide and live in tiny caves on Motu Nui until the manutara bird arrived. And, of course, they also had to find a way to avoid being killed by their competitors during this long wait for the bird.

When the bird arrived and laid its egg ,the first to get the egg let the people waiting on Rapa Nui know by shouting “Ka varu te puoko!”, which means “Shave your head!”. This signaled that someone had the egg and was returning to Rapa Nui. This might signal success, but the competition didn’t end here. He still had to get back to Rapa Nui and present the egg to his clan chief. This means he had to swim again for about two km and climb the 300 m cliff, now carrying an egg with him. To ensure the safety of the egg, the competitor placed the egg safely in a headband and then started his return adventure carrying the egg on his head.

The Tangata Manu or the Birdman

Once the competitor achieved his task of safely handing the manutara bird egg to his chief, he became the winner of the competition. He thus became the Tangata Manu or the birdman and became highly revered in society. For everyone to remember his courage and achievement, each Tangata Manu had his mark, a symbol of a being with human body and bird head, carved in the rocks at Orongo by the head of his clan. These petroglyphs are still visible today on the rocks surrounding the Rano Kau volcano. Moreover, the symbols of the Tangata Manu can be observed carved in rocks and caves (top picture) all over the island to forever preserve the bravery of the birdman.

The clan chief who received the manutara egg became the ruler of the island, thus ensuring peace among the different clans for another year.

Now think about it – would you chose to participate in such a competition if it meant creating peace and stopping an entire culture from going extinct? And if you did, would you be able to complete the tasks of this competition? If you think of all the challenges they had to overcome you can see why they were so highly regarded in their society. You would really have possess extraordinary strength and courage to participate and win the birdman competition.

The Protectors of Easter Island

The Protectors of Easter Island

You’ve probably heard many stories about Rapa Nui (a.k.a. Easter Island) and about the moai, theories on how they were made, why they were made and how they were transported around the island. But how much of that is really true? This summer I spent ten days on Easter Island and I’ve learned so much about its fascinating history, and I’m happy to share it all with you.

What are the moai?

Moai at Ahu Tongariki

The moai are monolithic stone statues that are very specific to Rapa Nui. These majestic statues are found all around Rapa Nui, and, opposite to what some might say, they do not face the ocean. The moai are always facing inland, looking over the land of the different tribes of the island. They’re there to protect the people of the tribe they’re guarding. But how do they do that, you might wonder. Each moai is carved in the memory of a certain ancestor of that tribe, and that’s not just any ancestor, but very high-ranking ancestor, someone whose spiritual energy, called the mana, would be strong enough to protect the tribe. To do that, the moai were erected on platforms called ahu and there they were placed on top of the bones of that ancestor. This was done so that the mana of that person would move through the body of the moai upwards towards the head and then the mana was transmitted through their eyes, once these were in place, to their tribe. This way the Rapa Nui ancestors could always watch over their people and protect them.

Building the moai

The moai were built at the quarry at Rano Raraku, one of the volcanos on Easter Island. Walking around this site gives you the feeling that you’re walking through history. This is the home of many moai who never made it to their platforms, who were left there, either still in the process of carving, or carved and ready for transportation and even some who had attempts of transportation. You can see some of these moai at Rano Raraku in the image below, where you can see that parts of their bodies are in the ground, for some, that’s several meters underground. That was not intentional, and it happened because when the Rapa Nui stopped building and moving the moai, these moai that you see below were left there and constant rain on the island led to material from the mountain sliding down the slope covering large parts of their bodies. This is why sometimes people assume that the moai are just head statues, but, in fact, all moai had bodies.

The moai from the quarry at Rano Raraku

Going back to the building of the moai, at Rano Raraku the carvers had plenty of material to work with, as their material of choice for building the moai was the volcanic tuff. About 95% of the moai on Easter Island are made of volcanic tuff, while the other 5% are made of other materials, such as basalt, trachyte, or red scoria. Once the moai reached the ahu, they became alive when they were placed on the platform and the eyes were added in the eye sockets.

Another detail that you see in pictures of moai is a red top added on top of the moai heads. They are called pukao and are made of red scoria. Often people assume, wrongly, that the pukao are hats. In fact they are their hair, being representative of the topknots. The Rapa Nui people grew their hair long, their hair length being associated with the mana, so the pukao is placed on the top of the moai to help pass on the mana.

Transporting the moai

If you’re thinking of the size of these moai, which could reach 18 m, you can’t help but wonder how did the Rapa Nui people move them around the island without any modern means of transportation? There are pretty much just as many hypotheses of how this was done as they are about how and why they were built. While some of these theories are more worldly, saying that they were transported with the tree logs, which lead to the deforestation of the island, others are a bit more other-worldly, involving the help of ancient aliens, as if humans don’t have enough ingenuity to figure out by themselves how to transport the moai.

While all the theories sound interesting – some more realistic than others – recent studies have shed some light on this mystery. In fact, the way the moai got the the platforms is pretty simple – they walked. Obviously, they didn’t walk on their own, that would get us back to the ancient aliens stories, they walked with a bit of help from the Rapa Nui people.

With the majority of the moai being built at the Rano Raraku quarry, the walking of the moai from the quarry is easier to understand when you think of the fact that Rano Raraku is a volcano, and the moai were carved up on the mountain slope. This helped in getting the moai into their walking position – after carving, the moai were slid down the slope of the mountain until they reached flat ground. There, ropes were tied around the heads of the moai, eye level, and people on either side of the moai pulled the ropes, moving it slowly to their final resting place.

To learn more about the history of Rapa Nui, have a look at the birdman competition and see how the Rapa Nui people managed to maintain peace on the island.

If you’re interested in learning even more about the moai and Rapa Nui/Easter Island please subscribe to my newsletter using the form below because more posts on the fascinating history of Rapa Nui will follow.

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