The Birdman Cult of Easter Island

Easter Island is mainly famous for its moai, but it also had a lesser known period of history called the Birdman Cult period. The Birdman Cult emerged in the mid-1700s after the moai-based social order collapsed, and had its own fascinating traditions.

Once a year, all of the clans on the island would gather for a competition to decide who would hold the political, economic, and military power of the island for the next year. They each chose representatives who competed, sometimes to the death, to be the first to bring a particular bird egg back intact to his king. That king then became the Tangata Manu, the one with all of the mana and power for the next year. For more history of the Birdman Cult and Easter Island in general, click here.

Orongo

Orongo was the ceremonial center of the Birdman Cult period. It sits on the side of Rano Kau, an extinct volcano, and looks down to the small islands where the competitions took place.

Birdman cult competition islands from Orongo
Motu Nui Island where the Birdman competitions took place

During the competition, the kings, queens, and priests gathered and lived here to watch. On average the competition lasted 3-4 days, though on at least one occasion it lasted as long as 3 weeks.

Houses at Orongo

The houses here were small and flat, with only a couple of small crawl holes for entrances. They hardly seem fit for kings, but they also make sense – if the leaders of rivaling clans are all gathered here in one spot, safety’s got to be a big priority. You would only need one person – even someone as small as me – to guard the crawl hole, and no one could go in or out.

Houses at Orongo
Ceremonial houses at Orongo
Houses at Orongo
Inside a ceremonial house at Orongo

During other times of the year, the village emptied but was sometimes occupied by scribes. Scribes of the Birdman Cult developed the only form of Polynesian written language. However, the language died out after about 100 years because the masters were kidnapped during the slave raids of the 1800s.

Orongo has a lot of art, both painted inside the houses and carved into rocks around the area. The Birdman petroglyphs was the main motif, but there were also heads and symbols of Make Make.

Petroglyph at Orongo
Clearest accessible birdman petroglyph at Orongo

Rano Kau

Right next to Orongo is the Rano Kau crater, 1.5 km wide with a 1km wide lagoon that is 11 meters deep. The patches of green in the lagoon are water weeds that originated in South America, which is evidence that the Rapa Nui had contact with the continent.

Rano Kau crater

Rano Kau crater

The oldest evidence of humans on the island is also found here in the lagoon, where layers have accumulated over time. A 3000 year old layer contained pollen of banana and taro root, two plants that could not have been present on the island unless they had been brought over by humans. They might have tried to colonize the island and died off or only used the island as a waystation to reprovision. However, no human artifacts or remains were found to substantiate the claim that humans were on the island 3000 years ago.

Ana Kai Tangata

Ana Kai Tangata was a nearby cave that was also part of the Birdman Cult ceremonies. Here, the kings of each clan revealed their Hopu Manu, the warriors that would represent them in the competition.

This cave is also one of the rare places where you can see Birdman paintings. However, in recent years, the cave has started to crumble, so you’re advised to get in, snap a picture, and then quickly get out!

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