The Birdmen of Easter Island

The volcanic crater rim of Rano Kau became the center of the Birdman Cult.

Following the demise of the iconic statuesque Moai era, a trendy new religion, the Birdman cult, captured the spirit of Eastern Islanders in the 18th and 19th century. The Birdman Cult’s annual cutthroat ritual focused on obtaining the first annual egg of a sooty tern from the isle of Motu Nui.

Birdman petroglyph
Birdman petroglyph

The winner would swim back through shark infested waters to Easter Island, climb the cliff of the Rano Kau volcano to the village of Orongo, on a narrow ridge between a 1000 foot drop into the ocean on one side and a deep crater on the other, while carrying the egg in a reed basket on their headThe unbroken egg would be presented to the contestant’s sponsor who would then become the Tangata manu. The Tangata manu’s clan would be first among the clans for the year and had dibs on the distribution of wealth on the island. The Tangata manu would be locked in a sacred house for a year eating, sleeping, growing his nails, painting his shaved head red or white and counting his good fortune.

The last Birdman festival took place in 1867 (the year of Canadian Confederation) after which Christian missionaries imposed their agenda on Easter Islanders.

The volcanic crater rim of Rano Kau became the center of the Birdman Cult.
The volcanic crater rim of Rano Kau became the center of the Birdman Cult.
Isle of Motu Nui.
Isle of Motu Nui.
Low, lenticular-shaped basalt flagstone ceremonial dwellings in Orongo.
Low, lenticular-shaped basalt flagstone ceremonial dwellings in Orongo.
The entrances are small to prevent attack, and give shelter from the elments
The entrances are small to prevent attack, and give shelter from the elements.
Hundreds of sacred half-man half-bird Birdman and Makemake (fertility god and chief Birdman god) images are carved into basalt.
Hundreds of sacred half-man half-bird Birdman and Makemake (fertility god and chief Birdman god) images are carved into basalt.
View from Ana Mai Tangata (Cave of Eating Men).
View from Ana Kai Tangata (Cave of Eating Men).
Ana Kai Tangata cave-paintings of sooty terns.
Ana Kai Tangata cave-paintings of sooty terns.

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