Easter Island’s Birdman Cult: A Story of Struggle and Survival
The Pacific Ocean is a world filled with diverse and remote islands, which are the home to some truly unique natives. Many of these islands were discovered comparatively recently in our history, and as such they still pose a wealth of captivating discoveries and mythologies that we can study and marvel at. But one island stands out more than most, Easter Island, Today we are learning a bit more about the mythologies of Easter Island, and especially the mysterious Birdman cult.
Relatively speaking, Easter Island is very small - just 24.6 km (15.3 mi) long and 12.3 km (7.6 mi) at its widest point - but even so, it is home to some stunning and one-of-a-kind discoveries. It is the perfect example of the diversity of our world’s remote cultures, and how even a small population can grow to accomplish stunning architectural feats.
Early History of Polynesian Settlers
Easter Island is considered as one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. It forms the easternmost part of the Polynesian Triangle, and the easternmost extent of the settlement of Polynesians. Even though Easter Island is officially a part of Chile, it is actually 3,686 kilometers (2,290 mi) away. The nearest inhabited land is 2,075 kilometers (1,290 mi) away. This demonstrates the sheer remoteness of some Pacific islands, and the lengths that the original settlers had to travel across uncharted waters to reach their destinations.
A Birdman cult carving on the back of a Moai stone monolith on Easter Island. (thakala / Adobe stock)
The exact date of the initial settlement of the island by Polynesian people is still a matter of debate. Several complex radiocarbon dating methods were carried out, as well as glottochronological calculations that helped determine the earliest proof of habitation. Early scholars claim that Easter Island was settled around 300 or 400 AD, while the later publications claim it was from 700 to 800 AD. Either way, in terms of common history, this island was settled for a relatively short time.
The sight that these early settlers would have seen was completely different from what Easter Island is today. Several researches confirm that it was heavily forested before humans arrived, and that the Polynesian settlers engaged in heavy deforestation. In a short amount of time, a great portion of the forests on the island disappeared. The introduction of the Polynesian rat also contributed to the rapid extinction of the trees.
Europeans made their first contact with the island on April 5th, 1722, on Easter Sunday - hence the name. It was a Dutch navigator, Jacob Roggeveen, who first visited the island and made early observations.
Easter Island natives (the Rapa Nui) with a Moai monolith. (Oficina Regional de Educación / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The Birdman Cult of Easter Island
The culture and the mythology of the indigenous Easter Island people - the Rapa Nui - were very unique and diverse, and stood out from other Polynesian cultures. One of the most interesting parts of their beliefs is also the subject of today’s article - the Tangata Manu.
The Tangata Manu is the widespread and very important Birdman cult of the island. The name directly translates as tangata (human beings) + manu (bird).
The Tangata Manu was the winner of an old and highly important competition that was performed yearly on the island. The competition was a way for competing tribes to choose the ruler of the entire island, based on skill and bravery of individual tribal warriors, rather than through conflict.
Each year, chosen warriors of each tribe would descend a sheer cliff known as the Rano Kau, swim offshore to the small rocky islet of Motu Nui, and retrieve an egg of a sooty tern. Subsequently, the men had to swim back, scale the cliffs again, and present an unbroken egg to their tribal chief as a present. The chief who received the egg first would then rule over Easter Island until the next ceremony.
The crater from the Rano Kau volcano, where the Birdman cult competition took place. (daboost / Adobe stock)
This unique method of choosing a new island leader is said to have emerged around 1500 AD, and it lasted all the way up to 1867 AD, when it was suppressed by Christian missionaries. It is believed that before the appearance of this ceremony, the islanders would choose a leader through warfare and inter-tribal conflict. But as their population numbered only 15,000 at the time of European discovery, and continually got lower, we have to assume that the Rapa Nui islanders realized that tribal warfare would lead to rapid and major decline, and thus established a more peaceful way of choosing a leader.
The Birdman ceremony was dedicated to Make-Make, the chief god of the cult, god of fertility, and also the deity that created humanity. The mysterious form of Make-Make appears throughout Easter Island, mostly in petroglyphs. In total, there were four documented Rapa Nui deities that were closely associated with the Birdman cult – Make-Make, Haua-tuꞌu-take-take, the Chief of Eggs; his wife vîꞌe Hoa, and another female deity, vîꞌe Kenatea.
Birdman petroglyph carvings on Easter Island, Chile. (diegograndi / Adobe stock)
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In ancient times, the annual ceremony begun in spring, which for Easter Island begins in September, due to its position in the Southern Hemisphere. The islanders would gather and travel to the island’s southwestern tip. There lied, and still does, a sacred rocky outcrop, which is named Orongo. Once there, the islanders would engage in several days of celebrations and diverse festivities, as they awaited the return of the migrating sooty tern birds.
The ceremonial Orongo Village on Easter Island where the Birdman cult competition took place. (lblinova / Adobe stock)
During the festival, special seers, in service of tribal chiefs, chose young men to represent them and swim for the egg. These seers were called ivi atua, and they would choose men based on visions they had. The chosen men were named the hopu manu, servants of the Birdman cult.
Upon the return of the migrating birds, which nested on the rocky islet, the competition began. Young men would descend the very dangerous cliff, and swim 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) to reach the islet. Once there, they had to wait for the birds to lay the eggs. The first one to gather an egg and return it to his own chief - unbroken - was the winner, and the chief proclaimed the tangata manu – the Birdman. The Birdman was the highest position in the society of Rapa Nui natives, and brought many prestigious privileges for the following year.
The Motu Nui islet where competitors swam to during the Birdman cult competition. (F.C.G. / Adobe stock)
The Remnants of the Moai Ancestor Cult
It is believed that the Birdman cult replaced an older, much more complex cult of the islanders - the Moai ancestor cult. The Moai are today the iconic stone features of Easter Island - tall, monolithic rock figures; imposing statues of men that dot the landscape of the island and its perimeters. There are as many as 1,000 of these huge figures around the island. Each figure displays the same features, and they are several meters tall on average, and can weigh up to 86 tons.
In modern understanding, these tall figures were a representation of ancestors, previous chieftains that were immortalized in stone. Today, it is largely a mystery as how the Polynesian people, without possessing the wheel or any iron tools, managed to carve out such imposing monolithic figures, transport them around the rough terrain of the island, and place them in upright positions.
Group of Moai monoliths on Easter Island. (Michael @ MoodyImage / Adobe stock)
The research confirms that the figures were mostly created from 1250 to 1500 AD, and this helps us to piece together the puzzle of Easter Island’s history. Why was this important and highly advanced ancestor cult replaced with a much simpler Birdman cult?
From Riches to Rags - A Classic Example of Over-Exploitation
The answer to the above takes us to the earliest settlements of the island. What we know for certain is that Easter Island was heavily forested before the arrival of the Polynesians. It was home to diverse species of trees, ferns, shrubs, and grasses. Fossil discoveries tell us that it was the home to Paschalococos disperta - Easter Island palm - an extinct species of palm, which was most likely the largest of its kind.
As the island is a part of the subtropical moist broadleaf forests belt, its landscape was very different in the past. Besides the diverse flora, it was home to a variety of birds, which are now no longer present there. These included herons, owls, and parrots.
But with the arrival of the Polynesian settlers, things changed at a rapid pace. They relied on the resources the island provided, and trees and birds were the primary of these. There is evidence that Rapa Nui natives relied heavily on agriculture, and thus engaged in heavy deforestation. As their prosperity increased, so did their religious cult, which adopted grand and complex dimensions.
As the forest disappeared step by step, and due to their cult relying on manpower and stone to create grand monolithic figures, the Easter Island natives faced a textbook problem - the over-exploiting of their resources. In a sense, the Easter Island culture exhausted itself, reached a natural climactic end, and descended into a chaotic struggle for survival.
They relied on what they had and rose to a high cultural level, but once they used up all the resources, they faced a sharp decline. And since they had no more trees to use in the creation of boats, they were essentially trapped in their home. It is speculated that the islanders then descended into a turbulent period of inter-tribal warfare, and that the ancestor cult of the Moai became suppressed.
At one point, the creation of these monolithic figures stopped altogether, and it is believed that through conflict and crisis, the new cult came out on top - the Birdman cult. It is most likely that this new cult was already widely adopted by the time of European arrival to the island.
But the worship of the ancestor figure survived in part in the new Birdman cult. Instead of worshiping and erecting new stone idols, the Rapa Nui natives saw the ancestors personified in the Birdman - the elected chief of the island.
Stone carving of the Birdman with egg in hand taken from Orongo in 1914 and now in the British Museum. (Public domain)
Essentially, the Birdman cult was a stopgap solution, a quick way out of the warfare that threatened to decimate the people. But it was also a loss of tribal independence, and the tribal way of life. Now all had to be ruled by the elected Birdman. But in the end, Easter Island and its natives would never again reach their previous heights, including the advanced culture of the Moai. Even during their first contact with the Europeans, it is reported that the natives were living in separation, isolated in their respective fortified caves, despite their ‘Birdman’ solution to civil unrest and chaos.
The World’s Deepest Mysteries or the Collective Unconscious?
One interesting aspect of the Birdman cult is the universal symbolism. Birdman figures can be seen all across Easter Island. They are in the petroglyph form - elaborate rock carvings that depict human bodies and bird heads. But interestingly enough, this odd art is not the only of its kind in the world. It is spotted all across the ancient world - and that poses many questions.
Many of the world’s oldest cultures worshipped humans with the heads of birds. But why? How come this mysterious depiction was so revered by humans all across the world. For Easter Islanders it was the Tangata Manu, for the Aztecs it was Huitzilopochtli, with the head of a hummingbird. In ancient Egypt there were Thoth and Horus, men with heads of birds.
Even in some of the world’s oldest art - the cave paintings of Lascaux - we can see the depiction of a man with a head of a bird. Is there a deeper connection beneath this? Or a collective unconscious link? We might never know, but it is certainly one of those mysteries of the world that defy all laws of logic and it forces us to look for answers beyond the limits of the stars.
What Remains Today
The Easter Island and its captivating Birdman cult shows us a fantastic insight into the workings of a small, isolated society and its journey from wealth and abundance, to over-exploitation and decline. This unique religious cult shows us a great solution to the problems of megalithic cultures that relied on unity, cohesion, manpower, and prosperity. Today, pure Rapa Nui natives are down to a handful of individuals - and the sad fate of their ancestors is immortalized in the history of their home - Easter Island.
Boersema, J. 2015. The Survival of Easter Island - Dwindling Resources and Cultural Resilience. Cambridge University Press.
Craig, R. 2004. Handbook of Polynesian Mythology. ABC Clio.
Fischer, S. 2005. Island at the End of the World: The Turbulent History of Easter Island. Reaktion Books.