Orongo and the Cult of the Birdman

I returned for a third time to the top of Rano Kau crater to visit the ruins of Orongo.  The low, grass-covered stone dwellings looked like barrow mounds; combined with the surrounding expanse of ocean, I caught a distinct Earthsea vibe.

In The Tombs of Atuan LeGuin describes carvings of winged men on the catacomb walls. Orongo contains many stone petroglyphs of the Birdman. Coincidence!?

The cult of the Birdman (the tangata manu) arose during Easter Island’s decline.  Moai construction ceased due to resource constrains and the abandonment of the old religion, and a new ritual took root.

Each spring the sooty tern birds would arrive to nest on the rocky islands below Orongo.

Back to front: Moto Nui, Motu Iti, shark-infested waters.

Prophets named a champion from each of the island’s clans, who in turn chose a delegate to compete to swim to the rocks and find the first tern egg of the season.  This accomplished, the contestant would shout out “Go shave your head, I have got the egg!”  The contestant would then strap the egg to his forehead and return to Orongo if he didn’t drown, get eaten by sharks, or fall to his death- in which case the contest would go on.  The champion would paint his shaved head, receive the egg, and be declared “birdman” for the year. His clan would get exclusive harvesting rights for the tern eggs, and the contestant himself presumably got bragging rights.

A super jacked birdman, as depicted in the small museum beside Orongo.

The missionaries who later arrived did not find the birdman cult compatible with Christianity, but the sooty tern population had already been hunted near to extinction, so the matter was largely moot.

The cult of the birdman was later the central story of Kevin Costner’s 1994 epic Rapa Nui.  The movie was filmed on location, cost $20 million to produce, and grossed $305,070 at the box office.

Not on Netflix, unfortunately.

Rano Raraku, Outer Crater: Graveyard of Civilizations

On my final day I awoke to sunny skies and dry roads.  I attempted to rent a motorcycle, but no one could be persuaded to give me one without an international class M license.  I took the matter up with the local rifle brigade/police and showed them my Facebook profile pic of me riding a motorcycle in Nicaragua as a substitute for a driver’s license.  They liked my moxie and were impressed with my Spanish as an American, so they arranged to call the rental agency to let them know I was cool.  Unfortunately, the rental agency didn’t believe the call was genuine, so still they refused me a motorcycle.

They were, however, perfectly happy to rent me this sweet ATV.

Not quite as fun to ride as a motorcycle, but I really can’t complain.

Once out of town I passed the airport, opened the throttle, and raced the plane as it took off.

Literally this.

I sped north to the volcano and wild horses ran beside me.

There’s no Uber on Easter Island (I checked), but that’s no problem if you can break a wild stallion and ride it bareback. Rental cars are also a viable option.

After a very cinematic drive I approached Rano Raraku’s slopes where scores of moai stood half-buried where they’d been carved.

Now that’s more like the travel brochures.

I parked my ATV and climbed the hillside to walk among the statues.

If this were a sci-fi story, and I’d landed my ship in this place, the cute medic would ask, “What happened here?”


“…where are the builders?”


…and the grizzled space-archaeologist would just say, “Long gone.”

The deserted alien world filled with eerie monuments from some”forerunner” civilization is a common sci-fi trope.  Inevitably, the hapless explorers end up awakening a xenomorph monster, an ancient virus, or whatever other horror wiped out the builders.

The trope, of course, has its roots in reality- the moai scattered across the slopes of Raro Raraku are literally *headstones* for their civilization.  You don’t need to know anything of the island’s tragic past to comprehend their sad gaze:

People were here.  People made us.  They are gone.  We remain.

It’s impossible to walk among the tilted, broken, and buried moai without unease.

You come.  You go.  We watch.  We remain.

The largest moai on the island was abandoned mid-creation, indicating that even in the face of imminent collapse, the islanders doubled down on their old ways of doing things.  Maybe they thought they required even bigger monuments to deliver them from their problems.  They Maya had thought similarly with their desperately escalating human sacrifices.

A moai‘s womb; now and forever a tomb.

You will join the builders.

The stoic expressions of the moai do not threaten, but seem to simply state inevitable fact.  Jared Diamond and other historians use Easter Island as the archetypal example of the collapse of an isolated civilization.  Diamond suggests two keys to preventing such catastrophes:

  • Long term planning: “…the courage to practice long-term thinking, and to make bold, courageous, anticipatory decisions at a time when problems have become perceptible but before they have reached crisis proportions.”
  • Willingness to reconsider core values: “…the courage to make painful decisions about values. Which of the values that formerly served a society well can continue to be maintained under new changed circumstances? Which of these treasured values must instead be jettisoned and replaced with different approaches?((Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin Books, 2011, chapter “The world as a polder: what does it all mean to us today?”, section “Reasons for hope”, pages 522-524 (ISBN 978-0-241-95868-1).))

It’s no stretch of the imagination to link Easter Island’s isolation to that of the whole Earth’s and to try to learn from the island’s mistakes.  The moai‘s gaze really hammers the point home:

Civilization’s survival isn’t a given.  This is what failure looks like.

The moai grant us perspective and awareness of our place in history in away that reminded me of astronaut’s impressions looking back at Earth.

This thing.

Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell put it eloquently:

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

I considered what I could do to safeguard humanity’s future, but nothing occurred to me that would be immediately doable from the hillside, so I hiked on to find a gap in the crater wall and my final destination in South America.

Rano Raraku, Inner Crater: Journey’s End

I entered the crater with an air of finality.  Horses grazed among the scattered moaiand blowing puffs of cloud dappled the hill with their shadows.

You don’t need perfectly idyllic solitude to do some quality contemplating, but it’s nice when it works.

I tried to reflect on the the combined experiences of my journey- from Belize to Tierra del Fuego to Polynesia- and was overwhelmed.  Over the past 182 days I’d seen a new city every couple days, changed companions every week, experienced new countries fortnightly.  I’d lived enough new experiences in six months to fill years.

No profound wisdom, epiphany, or Grand Unified Theory of Travel revealed itself to me.  By this time my backpack was stuffed past bursting with souvenirs and curios; my mind felt similarly.  I’d need time to unpack and reflect.

Instead, I let my feet and mind wander.

My legs feel really strong.  Solid.  Like they could carry me anywhere.  Which I guess they already did.  But probably metaphorically, too.

I’m come a long way.  Steve of three years ago would not have expected this, but he’d be impressed.

What a year.  I feel old.

Holy crap!  I’m on Easter Island!

I’m pretty sure this area’s off limits so close to the moai.  Don’t break anything.

How will I possibly be home tomorrow?  There’s no way Boston’s on the same planet as here.

Come what may, I’m truly blessed to have had the opportunity to come here.  Few people are so fortunate.

Does America extradite to Chile?

So it went.  My thoughts flitted among the places and people I’d come to know, and I touched the bracelets on my wrist to recall the scattered lands where I’d gained them.  I found a couple of inviting moai to sit by and unslung my ukulele.  I wondered what, if any, music had ever been heard in this place.

I played for the statues.

I played for a long time in the sunshine and the company of the stone giants.  Eventually it felt like time to go.

The road goes ever on and on…

Bonus Dance Challenge: The Kari Kari Cultural Ballet

I rode back to Hanga Roa and returned to my Airbnb, where I encountered my host outside.

“Have you seen the ballet, yet?” she asked.

“What ballet?”

“I own the cultural ballet here.  You must go!  I’ll give you a deal on the tickets since you’re my guest.”

I had tentative plans to do some astrophotography on my final night, but the clouds were already rolling back in.  “Why not,” I figured.

I showed up that evening to a dance hall/restaurant packed with tourists seeking some authentic Polynesian dance, which the islanders’ descendants practice to preserve their heritage.  Despite the touristy trappings, the performance itself was impressive and the dancers extremely athletic.  Each number took place somewhere on a hula-haka spectrum((Caveat: I am not an expert on Polynesian folk dance.)) ranging from sexy/relaxed to sexy/warlike.  Toward the end of the show my Airbnb host (who was running the lighting board next to me) asked if I’d like to get onstage to join the dancers.

The hula looked hopeless, but the musicians had started a high-energy haka-like song I thought I could work with.  Before I could reply, my host waved down a pretty dancer in a coconut bra and lei.  “Would you like to dance with me?” she asked in Spanish.

My divemaster’s words from way back in Belize came to mind: “Let’s go!  While we’re young and willing!”

How Steve Got His Groove Back

In the context of all my adventures, getting up to dance in front of a hundred strangers is a small and silly thing.  But it’s something I’d not have done before.

After the show, a mother and her young son approached me.

Parlez-vous français?” she asked.

“Yes, a little,” I replied.  (I’d refreshed some of my French among other backpackers.)

“My son wanted to compliment you on your dancing,” she said.

“You dance really well!” the boy said.  “Where are you from?”

“Boston, in the USA,” I replied.

“Wow!  And you traveled to Easter Island?”

“I traveled to all South America.”

The boy’s eyes widened.  “What an adventure!”((If this were a film I knew I’d be expected to gift the boy my hat so he could go on his own adventures someday and continue the franchise- but I like my hat.))

I laughed.  “Yes,” I agreed.  “The adventure of my life.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *