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Easter Island - Birdman

At Orongo, on the rocky cliffs at the far south west tip of Easter Island, is a ceremonial village of 53 houses, built for practitioners of the birdman cult. As the ancestor cult of erecting moai (giant stone statues) ebbed, the birdman cult briefly took over as the island's religious focus.

The ceremonial village was built at the top of 250m high sea cliff, on a kind of natural knife edge, for on the other side of the village (which is just a row of these stone houses), just metres away, is the sheer drop into a perfect crater filled with freshwater and reeds as at Rano Raraku.This was a kind of sacred birdmen's 'nest'.

Every year young men from the island's clans would meet here to take part in a most dangerous contest to establish who would be in charge for the next year. Scrambling down the sheer cliffs, those that managed to avoid falling to their deaths would swim out to the islet of Motu Nui, more than kilometre away. Remember folks, there are sharks in these waters, humungus waves and dangerous currents.

The first man to reach the island, retrieve the first egg of the first sooty tern which nests here annually and return it safely to Orongo won the contest. The winner became tangara manu - the sacred birdman - and gave your clan privileges such as first dibs on limited food supplies. Amazingly, the last contest took place as recently as 1868, when Christian missionaries, European diseases and Chilean slave-traders depleted the population so catastrophically that it finally put a stop to the fun.

The rocks at the top of the cliff are deeply carved with beautiful images of the birdman.

Above you can see the face of Makemake the chief god of the island.

Photos: Moth Clark

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Jane Posted by Jane
2nd December 2011ce
Edited 2nd February 2012ce


Comments (2)

Best photos I've ever seen of Easter Island. Beautifully written up as well.

tjj Posted by tjj
2nd December 2011ce
I second that. I've seen some photos of the place, obviously, but none as intimate. Great stuff. The Eternal Posted by The Eternal
10th December 2011ce
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