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.

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