Games with string, forming figures full of fantasy, are a pastime found throughout the world and within almost all cultures. Exactly where they began is unknown, but there is general agreement that they originated in the far east of Africa, Egypt, India or China. Ethnological research under the auspices of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum of Hawaii has resulted in the creation of a large, rich archive of traditions of these string games that have extended throughout many islands of the Pacific. The most detailed forms come from New Zealand, the Marquesas Islands, the Society Islands and Hawaii, where they are called Whai, Pehe, Fai and Hei, respectively.  Unfortunately, in western cultures, these games are being lost, although as late as the 1950s, children in Germany would play them, sometimes making figures by themselves with the help of their teeth and lips and other times working with two people who would go back and forth in the creation of the forms. Researchers Rivers and Haddon (1902) classified them in 2 large groups : the Euro-Asian types made by two people and the Oceanic-American made by a single person.

Among all these peoples, string figures are used to tell stories and to represent images, so that, when faced with a lack of written language, they became a manner to retain and recall legends, stories, traditions and myths that arose from the cosmology of each group. In addition, they sometimes served as a spiritual practice, in which they could indicate routes or as a form of reading the future and describing places.

On Rapa Nui, it is said that the great mythological colonizer,  King Hotu Matu’a, brought the practice of string games, called Kai-kai with their respective Pata’uta’u (recitations), but, if so, the practice was lost, possibly in the period of the slave ships (1862- 1863) or even before. It was later re-introduced.  In 1885, young Nicolas “Ure Potahi” Pakarati traveled with the missionaries to Tahiti to prepare as a catechist. Three years later, Bishop Jaussen sent him to the Tuamotu Islands in French Polynesia to look for a wife.  He married Elisabet “Tapeta” Rangitaki te Maki, a native of Fangatau Island, and returned with her to Rapa Nui to continue the evangelism which was started by the first missionary, Brother Eugene Eyraud in 1864. Their children, especially their son Santiago Pakarati who in 1921 married Amelia Tepano-Ika, inherited from their mother “Tapeta” the knowledge of the string games which she brought from the Society Islands.  María Ignacia Paoa, then 97 years old, in her interview in Moe Varua magazine of July 2011, told that: “In 1938, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the annexation to Chile, the military governor, Alvaro Tejeda, prepared a big party in which everyone had to participate by presenting something with native connections.  That’s when we began to recover the Kai-kai string games and their Pata´uta´u recitations, which were common in many Polynesian islands, but not on Rapa Nui.” Benito, husband of  Eperanza Pakarati-Tepano, the eldest sister of Isabel, mentioned that the Kai-kai  and Patau’tau wasn’t used in that time as  an public entertainment, only  us a very private ritual of the eldest women. The first mention of this type of cultural manifestation was made by Alfred Metraux, who visited between 1934 and 1935. Although he didn’t make many profound observations on the subject, he does refer to the existence of some 30 string figures with their respective Pata’uta’u which had been collected by Amelia Tepano and Santiago Pakarati.

For their daughter, Isabel Pakarati-Tepano, who year after year shares her knowledge with the children of the Island, Kai-kai used to be a game of the adults; the children just watched.  “My mother, Amelia Tepano, loved them.  It was her pastime.  She relaxed making Kai- kai and Pata’uta’u with strings of Mahute.  She would do them with my father.  He would recite a Pata’uta’u to my mother and she would respond with another Kai-kai and Pata’uta’u, almost like flirting. My mother learned from my grandmother, “Tapeta” Rangitaki, from the Tuamotu Islands.  In Polynesia there are many islands where they still do Kai-kai, with different names and different forms.  I was the one who paid the most attention, because I loved it that she would suddenly begin to sing.  I saved many Kai-kai that my mother had forgotten as she got older.”

Over time, string games acquired uses and meanings that went beyond mere entertainment or pastime. The served to give greater expression to the rich art of Polynesian oratory and poetry, strengthening the transmission of the local history.  They also became a teaching tool to pass on knowledge of sciences and magic which could influence nature and the conduct of men.

Although string games are practiced throughout Polynesia, it is on Rapa Nui where they reached an exceptional development, especially for the Pata’u ta’u, or recited verses that always accompany each figure. A Kai-kai used to be done with string made of the fibers of small trees called Hau hau (Triumfetta semitriloba) and Mahute (Broussonetia papyrifera) or the cord called Hau-kakaka, made mostly from banana fibers which sometimes incorporated human hair, called Hiro. The most important part was that the recital be the correct one corresponding to the figure. The tales revolve around events that are worth remembering, rites of passage or describe some intangible portion of the culture that make up the beliefs, myths and legends. The list of Kai-kai and the texts of 10 of the 23 recitals that have been saved are in a video with a written brochure for support that was made by Isabel Pakarati Tepano, Marcos Rauch and Pablo Avila in 1995. These and the remaining 13 were put into a registry by Olaf Blixen. Along with these ancient ones, there are today many Kai-kai of Tahitian origin and other local ones that have been created in modern times.