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An introduction to the moai, and the cult of the Birdman

Day sixteen in Chile

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Exploring Rapa Nui

Ahu Tahai

What’s in a name?

So here we are on Rapa Nui – and I use that name with deliberation. Most people refer to this remote speck of land, a dot in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, as Easter Island – the name given to it by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen when he came across the island on Easter Sunday in 1722. But the locals call it Rapa Nui, and we who visit are their guests, so that is the name I prefer to use also.

You will also come across the single word Rapanui, which is used to refer to the people themselves as well as to their language.

Tours of the island

Ahu Tahai

The usual practice for visitors with limited time is to take three tours – these are offered by several companies but the content of all of them is very similar. Of course, you can also explore on your own (you will need to hire a vehicle to get around), or take private tours but the latter are expensive. The three tours we took were:

~ A full day tour covering the main sights on the south-east and north coasts, including several of the major ahu sites, the moai quarry on Rano Raraku and the beach at Anakena

~ A half day tour covering the sights north of Hanga Roa including Ahu at Tahai and Akivi and the topknot quarry at Puna Pau

~ A half day tour in the southern part of the island which focuses mainly on the Birdman culture, visiting Rano Kau and Orango

The order you take your tours in depends on the day of your arrival and how long you are staying. With a flying visit of just two nights you will probably do a half day tour on the afternoon you arrive, the full day tour the next day and the remaining half day tour on the morning of the day you leave. I am very glad we had opted for three nights as that would have meant no time at all to explore Hanga Roa on our own.

On all our tours we had excellent local guides, who were born and bred Rapanui. They were very informative and I felt we had ample time at all the sites to both listen to what they had to teach us and to take as many photos as we wanted – I never once felt rushed.

Island guide

So, on our first full day on Rapa Nui we did the two half-day tours, starting with the area north of town and our first proper introduction to the moai culture. But first, a word about ahu and moai is in order.

Ahu were the island’s burial sites or shrines, located near each village. They are thought to derive from altars in French Polynesia. They are raised platforms made with stones and rubble, with a ramp that is often paved with beach cobbles and a levelled court in front. Many but not all have between one to fifteen statues on them, the Moai, and are known as “image ahu”.

Ahu Tongariki

These Moai are of course the iconic symbols of Rapa Nui. There are thought to be between 800 and over 1,000 of them here, although you won’t see anything like that number – many are buried of half-buried on the slopes of the main quarry, the volcano of Rano Raraku, and many others are just impossible to fit into any but the lengthiest of visits. But you will see a lot – and no, you are very unlikely to be bored with them (I did wonder, before my visit!)

The moai almost all stand facing not out to sea, as you might imagine, but inland, watching over the village. The figures are thought to represent not gods (again as you might imagine) but honoured ancestors who were placed here to continue to protect their village and its people after their deaths.

Toppled moai at Ahu Vinapu

Those you see standing today (about 50) have all been re-erected – none were left upright by 1868 although early European explorers told stories of them standing on the platforms. The Rapa Nui oral tradition recounts that the statues were toppled in inter-clan disputes as society here crumbled in the face of great adversity, when famine came to the island as a result of deforestation – some by rival clans and some perhaps by the people of their own clan in anger that they had failed to protect them. This is disputed by some experts who look to earthquakes and volcanoes as a more likely explanation, but our guides were consistent in sticking to the clan warfare explanation and I will honour that here.

There is even more controversy and uncertainly about the reason for the deforestation and its devastating effect on the island’s people. Traditionally the inhabitants’ over-use of resources is blamed – chopping down trees to make rollers to move the moai and for building purposes, until none were left and they couldn’t even build boats to escape the island, which became their prison. In this version it is hardly surprising that they lost faith in the power of the moai to protect them and fought among themselves. But some more recent theories point to the impact of sheep farming introduced by the Chilean government, or to climate change, or to a combination of all these things. Again, I will for the most part follow the oral tradition as given to me by the local guides who clearly believed the accounts they had grown up with, that the people had at least contributed to their own downfall.

Ahu Tahai


The first stop on our morning tour was at Ahu Tahai, a large complex located very near to the town of Hanga Roa and actually a group of three ahu: Ko Te Riku, Tahai, and Vai Ure. Ahu Tahai is the middle of the three and was the first to be constructed here, which is why the complex is named for it. It has a single rather weathered moai which (unusually) stands on a square base with no room for any others to be added.

The far ahu as you enter the site is Vai Ure, with five moai, only a couple of which are reasonably whole – two are missing parts of their head and the fifth is headless and barely recognisable. There is also an empty spot where a sixth must once have stood.

But the first ahu, Ko Te Riku, will probably make the most impression on you, as it did on me, as it is the only one standing on the island to have had its eyes restored. The replica eyes were based on one found at Anakena in 1978. This moai also has a pukao, the red stone topknot thought by most to represent the distinctive hairstyle of the Rapa Nui men.

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Ahu Tahai and Ahu Ko Te Riku

Ahu Vai Ure

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Ahu Tahai and Ahu Ko Te Riku

Ahu Akivi

Our second stop was at Ahu Akivi, a group of seven moai, and the only ones on the island that face toward the sea. This fact has led to much speculation about their origin and significance, but the truth is that they are less dissimilar to the others than at first appears, because like all moai they did look over their village which lay between the sea and the statues.

Ahu Akivi

Thanks to their seaward-facing stance they are, according to oral tradition, regarded as representations of the seven original discoverers of Rapa Nui – the explorers who, the tales say, first came here from Polynesia, on behalf of King Hotu Matu’a, to pave the way for future settlement. Scientists dismiss this story both because of the logical explanation of the positioning and the fact that the moai date from so much later than the era of first settlement.

Puna Pau


To understand the moai and their construction it is important to know where they came from. The stone used for the main part was quarried at Ranu Raruku which is visited on the full day tour and which we would therefore see on the following day, but this first morning tour took us to Puna Pau, where the red stone used for the distinctive cylindrical pukao (topknots) placed on many of the moai was quarried. In total about 60 were made here and taken to sites around the island, and a further 25 or so remain, scattered on the ground and unused – presumably abandoned when the moai culture collapsed.

Pukao at Puna Pau

Ahu Huri a Urenga


Our final stop of the morning was at Ahu Huri a Urenga, one of about 25 inland ahu, with a solitary moai striking for having two pairs of hands. It is thought to have acted as a solar observatory, marking the start of winter and signalling the culturally permitted times for different fishing and agricultural activities.

Moai with two pairs of hands

After a break for lunch in Hanga Roa (tasty tuna empanadas and large glass of fresh mango juice at Taina Pai by the harbour) we were picked up there for our afternoon tour which was devoted mostly to the Birdman cult, which followed the loss of faith in the moai.

Ana Kai Tangata and Rano Kau

Our first stop was at Ana Kai Tangata, a sea cave known for its bird pictographs or rock paintings which depict manutara or sooty terns, the birds that feature in the Birdman ceremonies. From here we drove to Rano Kau, a volcanic crater dramatically located right by the sea near the ceremonial village of Orongo and covered in a blanket of torturo reeds.

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Ana Kai Tangata

Rano Kau


But the main highlight of the afternoon was our visit to the ceremonial village of Orongo, where we learned all about the Birdman cult. After the deforestation of the island and the destruction of the moai, probably as a result in part at least of war between the tribes, the people needed to believe in something; if their ancestors could no longer protect them, who would? The answer was, one of their own. But he had to be the best choice, one of whom the god Makemake would approve. In order to select the “right man for the job”, the people organised a competition to collect the first sooty tern egg of the season from the rocky islet of Motu Nui, which lies off the south-western tip of the island near the ceremonial village of Orongo.

Motu Nui and other islets seen from Orongo

Each potential Birdman, typically the leader of a family group or clan, would nominate the strongest young warrior of their group to compete in a race to swim out to the islet, collect the first egg, swim back and climb the 250m cliff face to present the egg intact to their clan elder. But it was not the successful competitor himself who became the Birdman or Tangata manu for the year, but that elder.

As Birdman he was regarded as the fount of all wisdom for the year of his reign and would make all the major decisions for the island. But the “job” was not without its privations, as he had to live in seclusion for the whole year. He shaved his head and grew his finger nails – the traditional wood-carving of the island show birdmen with very elongated fingers.

At Orongo we learned all about the ceremony, saw the houses, and also pictographs from that period depicting both Makemake and Birdmen. We had an excellent guide and beautiful weather in which to enjoy the stunning sea views, so this was a real highlight of our stay on the island for me.

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Houses at Orongo

Orongo pictographs

Posted by ToonSarah 10:45 Archived in Chile Tagged culture history chile easter_island moai rapa_nui

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Didn't the ancient Greeks also deforest a lot of their islands, just from overuse? Of course they weren't so far away from everything, so they were not imprisoned on their islands like the Rapanui were.
Great that you had such excellent local guides.

by Nemorino

That sounds possible, but with less drastic impacts as you say.

I think this is one place where taking a tour beats independent exploration as the guides shared their first-hand experiences of living here and also that of earlier generations in their family, when times were tougher.

by ToonSarah

Really interesting part of history! I didn't know that they used all their woods..Now when there is a possibility to bring seeds from the "mainland" haven't they tried to raise forests again?

by hennaonthetrek

They have planted some trees Henna, but I guess with the changes in lifestyle and modernisation they don't need the wood as they would have done in the past. They can import building materials etc. And the focus of the economy has moved to tourism.

by ToonSarah

so much information and beautiful pictures, I really need to see them now! Thanks for telling us. I already knew a bit about the birdman, but seeing the pictures makes it even more interesting!

by Ils1976

I find the Birdman cult as fascinating as the moai, Ils, although the latter make for the best photos! This whole day was wonderful :)

by ToonSarah

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