Tangata Manu,The Bird-Man and its Origins

by Cristian Moreno Pakarati / Historiador

The origins of the rituals celebrated at Orongo, as a religious cult connected to the migratory sea birds which arrived at the islets in front of the cliffs, have still not been well determined even today.  Some writers have supposed that it was of late origin, following after the megalithic era.  Others propose that there was a transition period between the so-called Bird cult, this new religion associated with the bird-man, and the megalithic period.

Rapa Nui was populated sometime between the years 800 and 1100 A.D. by Polynesian navigators. Over several centuries, the Island formed part of the Polynesian sea lanes, receiving frequent ships and even fleets. According to Geoffrey Irwin, the southeastern route of navigation included the islands of Marutea Sud, Mangareva, Temoe, Oeno, Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie atoll and, finally, Rapa Nui, even considering the possibility of a last leg to South America.  During this period, the cultural development on Rapa Nui and other islands of the Southeastern Pacific occurred within the wider Polynesian sphere, due to interconnected influences, rather than in isolation on scattered archipelagos.  In this era, carving of stone statues was begun on several Polynesian islands.

Beginning in the XIVth Century, Pacific navigation began to diminish rapidly due to the Little Ice Age, which caused lower temperatures and drier climates.  These effects made it impossible to maintain large colonies on those Polynesian islands that were most susceptible to the climate change.  The navigational route which was most affected was the southeastern, which led to the abandonment of all the islands between Mangareva and Rapa Nui.  This left Rapa Nui isolated, now at twice the distance than before from the closest inhabited point (Mangareva is 2800 km – 1740 miles away).  Although direct navigation between one island and another is not impossible, it was surely an excessive risk which, in the end, led to the disconnection.  The end of the era of long distance navigation isolated the archipelagos of Hawai’i, New Zealand and, obviously, the solitary island of Rapa Nui.  This extreme isolation led to the development of unique, specific cultural traits.

The origin of the Bird cult can be traced to this period of isolation and is a reinterpretation of the cult of the ancestors.  It began to gain more acceptance and slowly replaced the megalithic (giant stones).  The construction of moai reached its peak in the 15th and 16th Centuries, followed by a slow decline in effort, technique and construction of ceremonial platforms.  The apex of the Bird cult wouldn’t come until after the contact with the first European explorers in the 18th Century.

With the end of Polynesian long-distance navigation, Rapa Nui became an isolated territory, surrounded by a vast ocean and, with the passing of a few generations, unknown.  The loss of contact with human beings of other latitudes produced a change in the mentality of the inhabitants of Easter Island.   From a people born in a wider oceanic world, part of a great Polynesian maritime enterprise, they became individuals born on a speck of land in the middle of an infinite mass of water.  The horizon became the limit of the known universe for the Rapanui, and what lay beyond was simply the object of obscure legends … “the universe was an island” in the words of Edmundo Edwards.

Two planes of existence converged in the concept of the universe on remote Rapa Nui.  The people understood that life after death was something horizontal, rather than vertical, differing from Judeo-Christian religions.  The world of the mortals, of the living was a triangular volcanic island.  The “beyond”, or Po, where the spirits would go after leaving their corporal bodies, was the sea and its depths.  Nonetheless, some spirits of higher hierarchy could travel even farther, beyond the sea to Hiva or Vakevake.  Hiva appears in legends as the land of origin of the first inhabitants of the Island.  Although those legends tell of the island sinking into the ocean, the Easter Islanders were able to be certain that other lands existed beyond the sea, due to the arrival of birds. These birds had to come and go from somewhere. Some clues on what was to be found “beyond” can be seen on the shores of the Island and in the cycles of nature.   Tree trunks and wooden flotsam which arrived floating on the waves was a semi-divine signal.  But easier to predict for the observers and the “scholars” of the Island was the arrival of the turtles and the migratory marine birds.  The birds were part of the natural cycle, which together with the flowering of the trees and plants, the phases of development of the insects, the position of the sun and the stars, allowed the people to calculate the passage of time and the seasonal changes on the Island.

Birds became considered as a connection between the world of the living and the world of the spirits.  They were the messengers of the spirits, of the ancestors and of the gods.  In the latter case, an avatar of the god Rongo, called Make-Make, became the principal divinity associated with this cult.  The Rapanui had to decipher the messages brought by these winged creatures from the spiritual world.  For that reason, the Manutara (sooty tern) was given a preponderant position among all the migratory birds. With its arrival around the spring equinox, the message of the Manutara was perfectly clear: the end of winter, the end of cold, the end of scarcity … the beginning of abundance, of fertility, of good times.  This is the new beginning of the annual cycle and a sign from the spirit of the ancestors (among which are also the gods) to renew their alliance with the living. We can, therefore, consider that the Bird cult was an extension and reinvention of the cult of the ancestors that arose from a particular trait.

Its apogee was after the arrival of the first Europeans, when the Tangata-Manu (bird-man) competition at Orongo reached it maximum expression.  It is altogether possible that the arrival of these European ships simply confirmed to the Islanders the truth behind their religious beliefs, transforming it into a type of “cargo cult”, incorporated in the ritual symbols that can be found in the rock art at Orongo.  The ritual came to an end with the depopulation of the Island, the arrival of missionaries and the imposition of Christianity on the demoralized survivors of a once great civilization.