Ancestral Medicine on Rapa Nui

Ancestral Medicine on Rapa Nui

Nga Rongoa

Ancestral Medicine on Rapa Nui

Within the philosophical world view of the Rapanui, good health is based on the union of man and nature, between life and death, in the present, the past and the future.

Any mishap or disease has its origin in supernatural forces and is in relation to the violation of some law or taboo that exists to maintain the natural equilibrium, both in health as well as in the familial or social sphere.  It was common on the Island to find people who believed that remedies existed for all ills; that it was just necessary to determine what they were and then apply them.  This responsibility fell on the ancient medicine men, the Tumu Ivi Atua. These people had different specialties.    There were the “invisible doctors”, the Varua or spirits who practiced magic, and the “visible ones” who took care of corporeal treatment.  The latter were capable of stitching a wound with needles made from bones of birds or even humans and thread of human hair.  Dislocations and sprains were treated with massages and splints.  In later years, medical care was done by certain Koros and Nuas, the wise elderly people who inherited the spiritual methods of restoring the equilibrium.
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The Rapanui placed much importance on the spoken Word (Tohu), initially as a cause of sickness and then as a method of treatment.  Most of the ceremonies related to community life were dependant on speeches, songs and tales.  Thus, as a bad word could cause sickness, accident or even death and it would be impossible to retract it or cancel it, medical treatment was accompanied by beneficial magical words.

Beyond the magical causes which altered the internal equilibrium of the organism, there were also natural causes which the islanders considered “imbalance between heat and cold”.  People were warned not to expose themselves to brusque changes in temperature.  Cold could penetrate the body in different forms.  Among women it entered through the genitals and the urinary tract, the stomach, the bones and the muscles.  Some plants have properties which heat the body and were used as hot drinks, inhalants, steam baths and magic.

Another form of regulating the hot-cold equilibrium is massage known as Tauromi.  According to the report of W. Thompson who visited the Island in 1886, master masseuses gave massages and rubs, slaps and pinches, which alleviated and regenerated the body.  The hard-fisted native is not exactly gentle in this operation; the palms and knuckles vigorously probe each muscle and tendon, as well as every vertebra, until the exhausted patient falls into a state of profound somnolence.


About another original method of physical therapy, we have the reports of Alfred Métraux. The patient was placed over a hole in a rock which had been filled with heated stones to cause heavy sweating.  The first step was to excavate the hole and fill it with the stones which had been heated in the fire.  Over the stones, fresh water or salt water would be poured to make steam.  A mattress of banana leaves and herbs would be prepared on which to place the patient.  A further layer of leaves would cover the body.  For these steam baths, it was necessary to add the proper medicinal plants which would increase the therapeutic effects.  Induction of sweating was considered an effective method for cleansing the entire organism, similar to steam baths or sauna today.  This was used in cases of colds, coughs and bronchitis.  The hot stones were also used for local application of pressure or heat.  They would heal pain in muscles, the lumbar area and the bones.  They also served to prevent stretch marks after childbirth.

There were magical causes altered the body’s internal balance, as well as natural causes to which the Islanders qualify as an “imbalance between hot and cold”

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Even today, it is a usual custom to spend time along the coast, breathing in the salty sea air.  Small sea snails and seaweed are eaten in the belief that they protect from colds, asthma and skin diseases.  The Islanders have great faith in the preventive and curative properties of iodine.  Sea baths are recommended for genital cleansing, for skin diseases, for bleeding and for healing of wounds.  In the past the medicine men would commonly use shark liver oil to be applied to speed the treatment of wounds as well as for skin diseases.  The oil was also useful in treating inflammation in intestinal disease or in the female genital tract.  The flesh of fish was recommended for “drying” pustulence in the skin.


Among the women, “vaginal baths” with hot steam, oil and massage were popular.  Daily genital hygiene comes from women treating the vulva and vagina as the “most delicate part of the body” since that area is responsible for procreation and sexual activity.  Rapanui women feel that they have “something special” that other women don’t have.  They treat their reproductive organs and sexual activity as a reflection of their ethnic culture.

By Zdzislaw Jan Ryn

University School of Physical Education. Kraków, Polonia
Autor y co-editor del libro “Cuevas de Isla de Pascua” y autor del libro “ Isla de Pascua. Medicina en la Tierra Sagrada de Hotu Matua “, editado en Polonia. Author and co-editor of the book “The Caves of Easter Island” and author of the book “Easter Island : Medicine in the Sacred Land of Hotu Matua “, published in Poland.
Photos by the Author

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