Easter Island: From Fallen Moais To Birdman Cult

Where moais used to stand

"What you see here is how exactly things were since the last 200 years or so", James announced as we arrived at Ahu Vinapu. It's a brisk early morning and I haven't completely digested everything our little group saw the previous day.

There are more stones to see. Which probably will lead me to stone-fatigue by end of the day.

On this site - composed originally of 3 ahus or platforms - are moais which remained toppled and unrestored, with many foundation stones in complete disarray, as if some giant hands pushed them all. We were standing right at the edge of the island's only airport runway and James was pretty sure jet blasts had nothing to do with this devastation.

A topknot lies where it fell
Toppled moais turned into human shelter

To some casual observer, these topsy-turvy stones can mean nothing. No interpretive signs or explanations whatsoever. With James serving as guide, he made things easier to grasp and imagine the way these moais were as seen by its builders. His book was a great help but there's really nothing like the author himself doing most of the talking.

Two interesting things about one of the platforms came about as we circled it with wide-eyed curiosity: stonework and recycling. It is here where Rapanui stone masonry is at its finest, as if copied from the great Incas of South America. The stones were almost perfectly aligned and fitted leading to this popular theory about contact between two pre-Columbian civilizations.

Stone masonry a la Inca

Meanwhile, 3 of the fallen moais which used to stand atop this platform was turned into a shelter by one of the islanders. Large stones from the platform were used to form the passageway. This may look like adding insult to injury but this apparently was done at a time when the Rapanui already lost faith and respect for deified symbols of their ancestors.

When the whole island succumbed to ecological catastrophe, the Rapanui people got more desperate for food. Eroded topsoil has rendered the island barely capable of producing any plant to eat. There were no more trees to build canoes with - either for fishing or even to escape elsewhere.

It was during Easter Island's darkest hours when the Birdman Cult came to be. The glory days of moai worship was dying only to be replaced by this new cult. In what seem like an attempt at normalcy, rival tribes resorted to competition among selected men to determine leadership in the island. Rather than kill each other to oblivion, why not rebuild and reform themselves and their culture?

One of the many petroglyphs depicting Birdman cult

What this involve may well be the equivalent of today's triathlon. Selected athletes representing a tribal chief competed in a game involving skills and stamina. From the ceremonial village of Orongo, they scale down precipitous crater cliffs and swim out using a reef surfboard to one of the islets. There they await for a chance to grab the first nesting Sooty Tern egg and return it to the island unbroken.

Winning the game is very important. Besides getting a celebrity status for a year, the winning athlete and his tribe earn privileges, most important of which is access and control of remaining resources. It was this very practice which made Rapanui society survive in a way. But just as the islanders where at their most vulnerable, Catholic missionaries arrived and converted the locals. With this new religion came the end of the Birdman cult. The last race took place in 1866.

Rano Kau crater
On the crater rim walk
Rano Kau crater @ Orongo

To get to Orongo, we drove first up Rano Kau, the largest volcanic crater on Easter Island. Peering down the edge of this caldera without any railing is seriously vertiginous and suicidal. Down below is a freshwater reed-covered lake more than a kilometer long in diameter.

We walked along the crater's edge to Orongo. What was supposedly a 15-minute walk turned into more than that as we constantly stopped to admire the stunning views. Yellow wildflowers danced in the prevailing winds. Just a few inches from the path was the cliff which so reminded me of my walk in Santorini a year ago. It's proximity was also a constant reminder of my mortality.

Past the Visitor's Center in Orongo (where our tickets were checked), it was a mere five minute walk to another grand vista, that of the Pacific ocean and the islets or motus. The biggest one among them, called Motu Nui, played an important part in the Birdman competition as this was where the much coveted bird's egg was fought for.

3 motus: Motu Kao Kao (thin islet) , Motu Iti (small islet) & Motu Nui (big islet)
Orongo house with roof half-opened
Orongo ceremonial houses

Lining up parallel to the sheer cliffs are restored stone houses which make up the core of Orongo's ceremonial village. Entrances to these houses are seriously tight - as in claustrophobic tight. Visitors today are not allowed to go in but one house has its roof half-uncovered to give everyone a glimpse of how spartan living conditions were then.

Interestingly, just as people thought the islanders were done with moais, a group of British sailormen in 1868 saw one statue in one of these houses. This moai is unique not only because it's made from much harder basalt, there are carvings on its back dedicated to Birdman cult! Called Hoa Hakananai'a (meaning "Stolen or Hidden Friend"), the statue was brought as a souvenir back to England and is now housed at the British Museum.

Topknots below the quarry
Puna Pau quarry

The moai topknot (or pukao) was quarried from the small volcanic crater Puna Pau so that's where James brought us next. Red scoria is what the islanders used to make into pukaos. Weighing up to 12 tons each, these headdresses were added later on after the statues have been erected. Not all moais wore topknots.

Remains of topknots lay not far from where we left the car. It's not clear whether these were "rejects" or were actually waiting for transport. A short hike up the crater got us rewarded with a view not only of the actual quarry but also of downtown Hanga Roa as well.

While moais have been traditionally built along the coasts facing inland (meant to offer protection to a village), one exception is Ahu Akivi. We drove about 3 kms away from the sea and into this platform crowned with seven monoliths. The site was the first platform to be fully restored in 1960.

Moai moment @ Ahu Akivi
Ahu Akivi
Ahu Akivi

From the interior, we went back to the coast. Near Hanga Roa is Ana Kai Tangata, offering us one of the best coastal views not only in Easter Island but anywhere else in the world. The wild surf and the furious sound is nothing like I've seen and heard before. This is just another part of the island where the Pacific ocean hammers it incessantly and yet fights back holding its ground above water.

Anyone who've seen the movie Rapanui may remember the last scene where Noro (Jason Scott Lee) and Ramana (Sandrine Holt) was leaving the island with their baby on a canoe for good. That scene was taken right in front of the cave at Ana Kai Tangata.

Cliff-side fishing at Ana Kai Tangata
Cave painting
I'm not diving in there

There are steps leading down to the cave - which creepily means "man-eating cave". Up on the ceiling are what remains of a painting depicting birds in flight, all related to the Birdman cult. They're almost completely gone as parts of the ceiling cracked and fell to the ground over the centuries.

We sat on the rocks, our sights glued at the pounding waves, our thoughts filled with a timely parable: that  the Rapanui people and this island they live on has a lesson for the rest of the world to learn from. No, getting stone-fatigue isn't one of them.


  1. incredible. the best way to learn history is by traveling, IMHO.

    may i ask how big the orongo ceremonial houses are? i cannot get scale just by looking the photo. those openings allow a full grown person? what's inside?

    1. The Orongo houses are not big & the doors are really so small only one person at a time can crawl through - it's that tight! It's meant to keep the harsh elements of nature at bay since it gets so windy up there. Sadly, nothing's in there anymore as they've all been looted by foreign sailor men.

  2. Stunning photos! very informative website...

  3. Wow, what a very comprehensive write-up, Dennis! You've given us a complete picture of Rapanui. I'll hunt down that movie.... I can't wait to get to Chile (cross fingers by next year) and some day see all these stone figures in person.

    1. The full version of the movie is on YouTube.
      You'll fall in love with Chile especially if you're after the outdoors!

  4. Hi Dennis,
    It's great to know that there's a lot more to see in the island than the moias. The volcano, petroglyps and the other stoneworks and the views look incredible. Your photos are postcard perfect!

    1. Thanks! There are indeed many other sights to combat moai-fatigue. After all, after seeing many, you'd feel like you're seeing the same (although of course that's not supposedly how one should see it).

  5. Oh my, such a beautiful place dennis! I've a friend who really wants to visit these stone structures. breathtaking pictures as usual!
    lol at the "Moai moment @ Ahu Akivi" photo. haha

    1. Thank you! That's my non-complaining traveling buddy up there hahaha!
      I'm not surprised Easter island is getting on many other traveler's bucket list. So aspirational but doable!

  6. You're setting the bar too high. Haha. Enjoyed reading the post Dennis! :)

    1. Thanks. If not for the airfare deal, I wouldn't have made it there.


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