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The Incredible Birdman of Easter Island

The tiny speck of Easter Island is just 14 miles long and 7 miles wide and is surrounded by the vast Pacific Ocean. More than 2,174 miles west of Chile and 1,242 miles east of the next inhabited island of Pitcairn, Easter Island was cut off from the rest of the world for most of its history. Often referred to as Rapa Nui, the evolution of Easter Island’s society has become one of the most unique and mysterious in the world. Aside from the renowned Easter Island Moai statues which are scattered across the island like sentinels, perhaps one of the most famous motifs of this remote Polynesian island is that of the Birdman.

Birdman petroglyph, Easter Island

A Birdman petroglyph at Orongo, Easter Island / Source

♦ Birth of the Birdman

The mysterious mythological Birdman which as the name suggests was half man-half bird, is strongly connected to the cult events that took place at Easter Island’s sacred ceremonial site of Orongo. The Birdman cult came into being after the ‘Ariki Mau’ (paramount chief) of Easter Island at that time, began losing power possibly due to the ecological stresses that faced the remote island. With this fall from power came the end to the Moai statue carving era of Easter Island. The ‘Matatoa’ (warrior class) replaced the Moai building culture of Easter Island, and the rise of the Birdman emblem began. Although the Birdman cult remained in practice up until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the mid to late 1860s, the Birdman emblem was included on the flag of Easter Island from 1876 to 1888.

Birdman, Easter Island

The Birdman carved into the rocky ground at Papa Tataku Poki / Source

♦ The Deeper Significance of the Birdman

As one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world, the Birdman represented everything the secluded population of Easter Island could desire. Birds represent freedom and wisdom as they can locate shoals of fish and bring food and therefore the birds of Easter Island became significant for ritual, spiritual and purely economic reasons. The Birdman signified the attempted rebirth of Easter Island having ultimately run its resources and society to the ground. It is no mistake that the bird chosen for the Birdman emblem is a frigate bird which is one of the great predators of the Pacific and capable of flying huge distances. Studies exploring the cult of the Birdman show that it did wonders to save the islanders with its annual Birdman Ceremony at its heart.

MakeMake (fertility god) with two Birdmen

Carving of MakeMake (fertility god) with two Birdmen / Source

♦ Orongo Ceremonial Village

The Birdman cult festivities were held at one of the most dramatic and beautiful places on Easter Island, known as Orongo. Located on a narrow ridge between a 1,000ft. drop into the ocean on one side and the deep volcanic crater of Rano Kau to the other; this was certainly an inspiring place to hold festivities. With a collection of 54 stone homes, the Orongo Ceremonial Village marks the stunning collision point between the mighty forces of nature. One of the most noticeable things is the lack of Moai found in and around Orongo. As the center of the Birdman cult, there was only ever 1 special Moai statue made from basaltic rock located at Orongo which was removed in 1868 by the crew of the HMS Topaze and transported to London. Today this statue can be seen in London’s British Museum. The most sacred area at Orongo is called Mata Ngarau which is where priests would chant and pray for success in the annual egg hunt of the Birdman Ceremony. One of the most fascinating sights at Orongo is the hundreds of Birdman and MakeMake (god of fertility) carvings that have resisted the decades of being exposed to the elements and weather.

Rano Kau, Easter Island

The deep volcanic crater of Rano Kau / Source

♦ The Impressive Birdman Ceremony

Opposite the cliffs on which Orongo Village is located, is a cluster of islets home to some of the last remaining birds nesting at Easter Island. The Birdman Ceremony took place every year, with each clan chief nominating a young champion to try and win the crown of the coveted new Birdman. Competitors would have to descend the formidable cliff before plunging into the raging Pacific Ocean and swimming for their lives for approximately 1 mile out to the largest of the 3 islets, Motu Nui. Here they would await the arrival of the Sooty Tern birds, with the champion’s mission to be the first one to grab the first Sooty Tern egg to be laid. When the first egg was laid, the champion would place it into a small woven basket on their head to protect it. The Ceremony had just reached over the halfway point as the competitor would have to plunge back into the water which to add insult to injury are full of sharks most of the time, and swim back to the mainland before ascending the cliff and presenting the egg to the Chief of the tribe that had sponsored him.

Motu Nui, Easter Island

Motu Niu as seen from Orongo / Source

♦ Easter Island saved by the Birdman

Whichever tribe won the race had its Chief crowned as the Birdman and the tribe would have the first call on the island’s diminishing resources for that year. This turned out to be an ingenious solution which used the previous aggression of the islanders to create a competition which led to an orderly passing out of Easter Island’s resources. The Birdman Ceremony represents an incredible societal effort to keep the Easter Island society from dying out and was one of the main reasons that when the Dutch explorers landed on Easter Sunday in 1722 there seemed to be no signs of war and there were plentiful food supplies.

Sooty Terns, Easter Island

Fading Ana Kai Tangata cave paintings of Sooty Terns, the focus of the Birdman Ceremony / Source

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