The Battle between the Short-Ears and the Long-Ears

by Cristián Moreno Pakarati · UC/Ahirenga Research / Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui

One of the most well known stories of Rapa Nui tells the legend of the Hanau Momoko and the Hanau ‘E’epe, two groups which shared and then disputed the Island many centuries ago, culminating in an epic battle at the foot of the Poike peninsula. The Hanau ‘E’epe were said to have a robust form and were noted for artificially lengthening their ear lobes (epe roroa). The Hanau Momoko were slim with the custom of tattooing their bodies. Some versions claim that both groups arrived together, under the leadership of Hotu Matu’a, who was a Hanau Momoko. Others indicate that the Hanau ‘E’epe arrived later and without women, taking Hanau Momoko women as wives. This legend became especially popular with the emphasis given in the books by the Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl. He believed that a story of two different races sharing the Island justified his hypothesis of an ancient colonization of Easter Island from the South American continent.

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This legend is rather odd since many of its elements don’t appear in any other tale, song or known ancient chant. Briefly, the legend tells that the Hanau ‘E’epe had problems to establish their society on an island covered with volcanic rocks. For that reason, they began to remove the stones and rocks, tossing them into the sea or building monuments out of them. Very soon, they realized that it would be a titanic task to remove the rocks from the 16 thousand hectares (nearly 40,000 acres) of the entire island and asked the Hanau Momoko for help. However, the latter refused, claiming that the stones were necessary for their cultivation of edible plants. The Hanau ‘E’epe migrated to the Poike peninsula to continue their work, but harbored a deep resentment toward the Hanau Momoko. After some time, and after finally clearing the peninsula of stones, they built a large ditch from Potu Te Rangi to Mahatu’a, the entire length of the area which joined Poike to the rest of the island. Into this ditch, they threw enormous piles of wood, as if they were going to cook a gigantic meal. The Hanau Momoko began to worry, as a rumor arose that this ditch had been built to cook the Hanau Momoko. The disappearance of some Hanau Momoko children and the suspicions directed toward one of the leaders of the Hanau ‘E’epe, called Iko, who had cannibalistic tendencies, led to both groups deciding that they had to eliminate the other.
En Potu Te Rangi, a Hanau Momoko woman, called Moko Pinge’i, who was married to a Hanau ‘E’epe man, decided that she had to help her native people. She set up a code to let the Hanau Momoko know when the Hanau ‘E’epe were all sleeping. One night she went out of her house to weave baskets and with this, some Hanau Momoko, who understood her message, silently climbed up the cliffs at Te Hakarava and hid on the eastern side of Poike. At dawn, the rest of the Hanau Momoko forces launched a frontal attack toward the ditch in the direction of Ava o Iko. Prepared, the Hanau ‘E’epe lit the wood as an impassible fiery barrier. At that, the Hanau Momoko troops hidden on Poike attacked from the rear and pushed the Hanau ‘E’epe against their own wall of fire. Many fell into the pyre and were burned to death in an incident which later became known as Ko te Umu Roa a Tavake, the grand “clam bake” of Tavake. The war continued unabated until all the Hanau ‘E’epe, with the exception of one called ‘Ororoine, were killed. His life was spared and he eventually had many descendants.

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Folklore is often a creative explanation of the way things were, using significant symbolism of the culture from which it comes. In this case, the explanations are wide and complex. The legend of the Hanau ‘E’epe and the Hanau Momoko could be considered an explanation of several cultural levels on the Island, in some cases, as a result of the arrival of different groups of sailors from distinct areas of Polynesia. Among those cultural differences could be the extension of the ear lobes, a tradition which is found among later Maori groups, and some wooden sculptures in styles that are not present among older statues.
It might also explain the existence of a strange natural formation, the Poike Ditch, which separated the Poike Peninsula from the rest of the Island and could lead to imagining that it was a defensive barrier with a major role during the war between the two disputing groups. And it attempts to justify the lack of stones on Poike, supposedly because the ‘E’epe would have removed the stones from the slopes of the peninsula in order to move about more easily.

On another level, the legend accounts for some notorious differences in archaeological traces found on Poike: statues of trachyte, unique petroglyphs, rows of taheta (stone basins) and several astronomical representations. These aspects are attributed to cultural differences between the ‘E’epe and the Momoko. As if all this was not enough, the legend also takes into account the abandonment of the Poike Peninsula in the 18th or 19th Century, which is when this story was first told. It also justifies the dread that some Islanders have, even today, to spend the night on Poike due to the supposed presence of the spirits of the Hanau ‘E’epe.

Nonetheless, the moral of the legend is the most important aspect. It emphasizes to the Rapanui the importance of stones for lithic fertilization. Stones were necessary to build the rock gardens. These protected the soil from erosion, held the moisture in the ground for much longer and supplied nutrients (iron, phosphorus and other minerals) that are essential for the growth of many crops. The Hanau ‘E’epe perished for their stubbornness in wanting to remove the stones from the soil, while the Momoko survived because they realized their importance for agriculture. The advance of erosion on Poike continues as a warning of this.

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