Rapa Nui (slightly) demystified

Rapa Nui, just South of the Tropic of Capricorn, forms the South-Eastern point of the Polynesian triangle, the other two points being New Zealand (Aotearoa) and Hawai’i. The closest inhabited island is Pitcairn (2,000km to the West). The island is part of Chile, which is over 3,700km away. The people, island and language are all called Rapa Nui, though the Chilean occupation is certainly diminishing the use of the language and refers to the island as Isla de Pascua (Easter Island), after the Dutch landing on Easter Sunday in 1722.

Volcanic Origins

The island began to form about three million years ago when the first major volcano, Poike, erupted. Ranu Kau then erupted about 2.5 million years ago, reaching a height of 300m and leaving a crater 1.6 km in diameter. The eruption of Terevaka about 300,000 years ago created the highest point at 511m and then subsequent eruptions of up to seventy volcanic cones gives the island its triangular shape.

Intriguing Cultures

There have been two major phases of history on the island, which has led to unique features. The first inhabitants arrived from another Polynesian island between 800 and 1200AD, most likely travelling on double-hulled canoes, founding the Rapa Nui tribes and culture which endured until around the 17th century. It was during this phase of the islands history that the majority of the Moai (head statues), for which the island is renowned, were created. The second phase involved significant conflict between tribes, the toppling of Moai, and the rise of the birdman ritual which lasted until the arrival of Catholic missionaries in 1864.

The Moai

At least 887 Moai were created, mostly carved from tufa, a workable type of stone found in the Rano Raraku crater, the main quarry on the island. The Moai were often given Pukao, a red topknot/hat carved from red scoria (quarried at Puna Kau), and many were transported to huge platforms, called Ahus and erected there facing inland.

Moai, the figures

887 Moai recorded
288 transported to and erected on Ahu
397 found at the quarry
92 left en route to Ahu
110 others either fragments or moved to museums

Average Moai height: 4.05m weight: 12.5 tonnes
Biggest Moai height: 21m weight: 160-182 tonnes (not completed, found at quarry)
Bigget Moai erected height: 9.8m weight: 74 tonnes
Smallest Moai height: 1.13m

Transportation of the Moai

Nobody knows how the Moai were really transported, because most of the records basically refer to magic (Mana) as the mode of transport… But there are theories ranging from rocking them back and forth to waddle them upright, to creating complex sleds from logs and rolling them to their destination. It seems likely that if transported flat, they were tilted upright by piling stones underneath them and gradually increasing the size of the pile while men pulled on the ropes.

Why build Moai?

It is believed that the Rapa Nui clans created these giant stone statues for two purposes, firstly to honour their departed ancestors, visibly establishing their heritage, but also to demonstrate the power and resources of a clan. This increasing need to demonstrate power and prestige led to conflicts between clans over the control of resources from the 17th century, including the toppling of Moai.

Whilst the Moai are exclusive to Rapa Nui, anthropomorphic figures are important across Polynesian societies including the Ra’ivavae and Hiva Oa of New Zealand (Aotearoa) and Hawai’i.

The Rise of the Birdman Cult

Fractures in the Rapa Nui culture in the 17th Century led to the diminished unifying power of the Ariki Mau (ruler) and the rise of a new system of society, known as Birdman cult (Tangata Manu). The Birdman cult is likely to have existed in parallel to the previous culture and is linked to the same ancient gods, with the main feature being the creation of thousands of petroglyphs across the island and surrounding islets. The culture was focussed on the tiny island of Moto Nui, just off the coast of Rapa Nui, visible from the slopes of Ranu Kau, where the people built a ceremonial village, Orongo.

Birdman Cult Rituals

The cult’s rituals spanned the clans of the island and revolved around two particular species of sea gull called Manutara which nested on Moto Nui, Moto Kao Kao and Moto Iti. In July, the tribe would assemble and prepare the ceremonial villages at Orongo and Mataveri. In August, the Hopu (competitors) would brave the sharks to swim from Orongo to Moto Nui where they would await the arrival of the birds. Then, when the birds arrived in September, the hunt began – the finder of the first egg would be Tangata Manu (bird man) for that year.

Once the Tangata Manu was decided, plenty of rituals were performed back at Orongo including having his head, eyelashes and eyebrows shaved, then he would conduct a tour of the island before choosing either Ranu Kau or Anakena to stay in isolation (except for the company of a priest) for the rest of the year. It seems that this birdman is the leader for the year, but unclear how he would rule from solitary confinement… It seems the cult fell apart during the 19th century (after Europeans arrived) after the designation of the Tangata Manu because some of the clans resisted the authority and refused to contribute food to support the new leader.

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