Low stone houses on a hillside
Culture & tradition,  History,  Rapa Nui

The Birdmen of Rapa Nui

After the deforestation of Rapa Nui, and the destruction of the moai, probably as a result in part at least of war between the tribes, the people needed to believe in something; if their ancestors could no longer protect them, who would? The answer was, one of their own.

But he had to be the best choice, one of whom the god Make Make would approve. In order to select the ‘right man for the job’, the people organised a competition to collect the first sooty tern egg of the season from the rocky islet of Motu Nui, which lies off the south-western tip of the island near the ceremonial village of Orongo.

Rocky islets seen from a cliff
Motu Nui and other islets
Rocky islets seen from a cliff

Each potential Birdman, typically the leader of a family group or clan, would nominate the strongest young warrior of their group as Hopu Manu. He was to compete in a race to swim out to the islet, collect the first egg, swim back and climb the 250m cliff face to present the egg intact to their clan elder. But it was not the successful competitor himself who became the Birdman or Tangata Manu for the year, but he who had nominated him, the elder of his clan.

As Birdman he was regarded as the fount of all wisdom for the year of his reign; he would make all the major decisions for the island. But the ‘job’ was not without its privations, as he had to live in seclusion for the whole year. He shaved his head and grew his finger nails; the traditional wood-carvings of the island show birdmen with very elongated fingers.


The village of Orongo was inhabited only in the days before the Birdman ceremony, during the month of September. This is springtime in this part of the world, when the sooty terns lay their eggs. The participants (clan chiefs, competitors and family members) stayed in specially built houses in three groups, facing the sea. They are constructed from the volcanic basalt of Rano Kau, the volcano on whose rim the village is perched, on a narrow strip between the edge of the crater and the sea cliff. The roofs are covered with grass and there is only one opening. Both door and house are very low and it is impossible to stand up inside. But as the houses were used only for sleeping that wouldn’t have been a problem. The design is ideal to withstand the strong winds that blow across the cliffs in winter.

Most of the houses have been restored many times. But two are left deliberately unrestored to offer an opportunity to peer inside. Entering the houses is forbidden.

Entrance to ruined low stone house
Unrestored house

There are apparently over 1,700 petroglyphs in and around Orongo; it has the highest concentration of rock art on the island. We only saw a small number of these, naturally, but I was able to pick out some of the human-like figure with the distinctive long beak that represents the Birdman.

Other carvings show animals such as seabirds, fish and turtles, or a face with large eyes, believed to represent Make Make.

The stolen friend

One moai was found here, Hoa Hakananai’a. This is unique in its construction (it was made of basalt, like the houses) and design. It is seen as providing a link between the two cultures of Moai and Birdmen, as on the back is a series of carvings linked to the latter. These include two Birdmen, the symbol known as ao (a symbol of male power and prestige), and komari (the symbol of fertility).

The moai was discovered in 1868 half-buried inside one of the houses by the crew of the English battleship Topaze. It was taken back to England and has since been housed in the British Museum in London. Hence islanders sometimes refer to this moai as ‘the stolen friend’. In recent years there has been some discussion between the museum and the Rapa Nui people about potentially returning, or at least loaning, the carving to the island but nothing seems to have been agreed as yet.

Rano Kau

The volcanic crater of Rano Kau is located right by the sea near the ceremonial village of Orongo, its waters covered in a blanket of torturo reeds.

Volcanic crater with reeds on the water and sea beyond
Rano Kau

Many Rapa Nui legends are associated with this place, and there are petroglyphs and other traces of earlier habitation around the crater’s rim.

At one point there is a huge bite in the volcano wall known as Kari Kari, where the lava flow once spilled into the ocean. It is thought that in time the continuous assault of the waves will result in this unstable wall collapsing, allowing the sea to flow into the crater.

Part of volcanic crater and sea beyond
The bite in the wall around Rano Kau, Kari Kari

Ana Kai Tangata

We also climbed the rocky steps down to Ana Kai Tangata.

Rocky inlet with steps down the cliff
The steps down

This sea cave is known for its bird pictographs, rock paintings which depict manutara or sooty terns, the birds that feature in the Birdman ceremonies.

Faded cave paintings
Faded cave paintings
Cave paintings of sooty terns

These can be hard to make out, but I found a painting which recreates their supposed original appearance: https://imaginaisladepascua.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Ana-Kai-Tangata-Manu-Iri.jpg

Among the birds there are a number of sailing boats. Researchers have suggested that there was a time when the islanders saw the European visitors as messengers from beyond, arriving and disappearing in the ocean just as the migratory birds did. This perception may have been reinforced by the fact that most of the ships that came to the island did so during the spring and autumn, when the sooty terns came back to nest and the ceremony of the Birdman took place.

We had an excellent local Rapa Nui guide to interpret the culture for us, and beautiful weather in which to enjoy the stunning sea views. This afternoon was a real highlight of our stay on the island, and for me seemed as much a reason to visit as the more famous moai.

I visited Rapa Nui in 2016


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