The Birdman Cult of Rapa Nui

by Elizabeth Willoughby

Climb freestyle down a cliff, swim through shark infested waters, survive attacks from competitors and get the egg – that's the Birdman competition that took place on Easter Island for nearly 200 years. But why?

015 Easter Island islets

Easter Island, known as Rapa Nui in the local language, is a hilly island of pastures scattered with rocks. It was formed mainly by three volcanoes into a 173-square-kilometre triangle and has been inhabited by humans for roughly 1,600 years, we think. Thanks to the 19th-century notes of missionaries, voyagers and scientists, it's the last 300 years or so of the Rapa Nui culture that we know most about. The writings and sketches describe a turbulent period that included the curious competition of the Birdman cult.

One suggestion for the appearance of the Birdman cult is that it came in response to a failing ecosystem and a resulting famine. Desperation could have caused the island's clans to turn on one another, perhaps battling for scarce resources. For whatever reason, at some point in the 1680s it was decided that one tribe should rule the island each year, and to determine which one that would be, the Birdman competition was held. Each tribe chose its own possible Birdman for the island. Each prospective Birdman appointed his own Hopu Manu, an individual to actually participate in the physical competition. Not every Hopu Manu would necessarily survive the race.

My walk up the Rano Kau volcano to get to the start of the race is steep and requires frequent rests. The payoff is the vast crater and its lagoon. About 1.5 kilometres across, the crater's long, descending walls provide a wind-free, salt-free enclosure and create a macro climate for vegetation. Traditional medicinal plants are still found here, as well as grapevines and citrus and coffee trees. Bulrushes cover much of the water, along with thick layers of tatora, a cat tail, which can actually support walkers.

012 Easter Island crater

In the narrow stretch between the crater and precipice that drops to the ocean lies Orongo, the restored ceremonial village where the Birdman race began. Low, round communal dwellings made of lenticular-shaped basalt flagstones are clustered together facing the Pacific. The flat roofs are uniformly overgrown with grass. Hundreds of petroglyphs, mostly of the Birdman figure (bird head, man body) and Make Make, the god of creation, appear on the rocks lying about.

Here are the cliffs that the Hopu Manus descended and swam out to the furthest of three islets, Motu Nui. Those who didn't fall, drown or get eaten by sharks, fought to gather the first sooty tern egg laid by the migrating birds, and then returned the same way — the winner to deliver the egg to his patron who was then declared Tangata-Man, the sacred Birdman.

The winning Hopu Manu was awarded a virgin chosen for the role during her childhood. The new Birdman shaved his head, eyelashes and eyebrows and went into isolation for months, attended only by a priest. The Birdman's tribe took command of the island. Chronicles of 19th-century witnesses note that this was often followed by a period of violence — a reluctant truce with a new authority, perhaps.

005 Birdman house

A better perspective of the Hopu Manus' treacherous cliff climb can be seen from the water, so I head to the harbour where a wetsuit and boat are waiting for me. Outside the breakwater the swells are deep and the splashes are high. Before long I am soaked, and motoring past Orongo.

The immense rock face, not quite perpendicular, towers above the blue waters. Grass grasps the rock wherever it can, giving the rugged cliffs a soft green matte appearance. Today the waves crash against the cliff face and roll out again. It is worse at the Motu Nui islet — too rough to attempt going ashore — but under the cold, clear water surface is a different story, which makes snorkelling the order of the day. It's calm and easy and I'm glad I'm wearing a wetsuit. I float like a buoy over the waves' ebb and flow while bright yellow angelfish swim below, followed by a school of trumpet fish. It's colourful and tranquil, contrary to the Hopu Manus' experience. Then I remember the sharks.

020 Easter Island islet

Foreign Assistance

The arrival of missionaries in the 1860s brought an end to the bizarre Birdman competition. It also brought tuberculosis, which killed off a large number of Rapa Nui. This came not long after Peruvian slave traders abducted nearly half the population of the island. A few managed to return. Unfortunately they brought small pox with them. With further "assistance" in the form of relocation to foreign lands by outsiders, the island population was down to about one hundred people nearing the end of the 1870s.

Chile annexed Rapa Nui in 1888. They confined the locals to one small area, which is still the only town on the island, Hanga Roa. It was a harsh and oppressive existence. The rest of the island was rented to foreign businesses for sheep grazing. To enter that territory, a trespassing local was risking his life. Eventually the island came under the management of the navy, and not until 1966 did the Rapa Nui people receive Chilean citizenship. Resentment of the injustices of their modern history lies close to the surface for many. Talking to locals, I sense a love/hate relationship with Chile — Rapa Nui needs Chile, but would rather not.

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, tourism is an important economy for Rapa Nui. At the beginning of February comes The Week of Rapa Nui, originally seven days of dance, theatre, legends, body painting and competitions to celebrate culture and history. The one week has stretched into two to accommodate the growth of tourism.

042 Hanga Roa

My guide suggests I go to Sunday morning mass in Hanga Roa where I'll hear some interesting music, "sort of like gospel". Off the main, tourist-catering streets of souvenir shops, hostels and eateries, Hanga Roa is a tiny, rustic town with dirt roads and small patch-work houses. Properties are shaded with banana, palm and eucalyptus trees and bordered with stone or stick fences overgrown with ferns, hibiscus and vines. Dogs and horses stroll about and casually share the roads with cars, jeeps and small motorcycles. Streets criss-cross down to the harbour or fade away into foot paths leading out of town. No one is in a hurry.

Church mass is a different atmosphere. Tourists with long camera lenses snap invasive shots of worshippers, while the hymn leader, possibly tone deaf but no one has told him, is the star of the show, belting out lyrics into his microphone. It isn't gospel by any stretch of the word, but there is an energy behind it.

Rapa Nui's turbulent past is sad, and that it has survived at all is surprising. One can only wonder what the future holds for this proud, tenacious race with its strange and compelling history.

070 Easter Island harbour

Where to Stay

LAN Airlines has the monopoly on flying in and out of Rapa Nui, either from Santiago de Chile or from Tahiti. Both flights take about five hours.

I recommend booking accommodations with Explora's hotel Posada de Mike Rapu, which arranges for visitors' every need from arrival to departure in world class style. Explora, who hosted me for this visit, supports the local community through investment and employment, and has earned a LEEDS (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certificate for its high environmental standards.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2009

This article was published at © 2010

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