Tales of the South Pacific 3: Moving Moai and the Birdman Battle

img_3473Our next visit was to the steep cliffs of the south west coast of the island. From up above we gazed down on foaming white waves pounding the shore of a small island: Moto Nui. This is were history was made.

The first inhabitants likely arrived on Rapa Nui in wooden canoes from far away Tahiti. From these first few, grew a population of thousands. But European diseases and fighting reduced their numbers to a low of 110 at one point. After the moai carving culture, competing tribes designed a non-violent way to establish order on Easter Island: the Birdman Cult. Chosen young men competed for the right to have their tribe rule for the next year, until the next competition was held.

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Birdman figure

The competition was held near the most important site on the island: the Rano Kau volcano, and consisted of climbing down a steep rock face of Orongo to the wild ocean below, building rafts from reeds, using these as floatation devices and swimming the rough kilometre wide passage of pounding ocean to Moto Nui island.

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We saw tiny rock houses at Orongo and scattered rocks carved with birdman and boat pictures. We also climbed the sides of the ancient volcano to look inside the crater, filled with shallow lakes where drinking water was collected and reeds for the rafts were cut.

img_3498We saw tiny rock houses at Orongo and scattered rocks carved with birdman and boat pictures. We also climbed the sides of the ancient volcano to look inside the crater, filled with shallow lakes where drinking water was collected and reeds for the rafts were cut.

The best came last when we visited the site famous from so many photos – the long row of moai standing shoulder to shoulder. This is iconoclastic face of Easter Island. img_3642

But my favourite site is the quarry. When I first heard the name, I pictured a rock excavation site where rocks were dug up. However, when you approach the quarry, it is as if the stone people have come to life and are walking out of the mountain from where they are born. A gently sloping green side of a volcano is scattered with upright figures. They seem to be walking down, stumbling and standing all over the slopes. The sight gave me goosebumps and a lump in my throat. img_3618img_3633

The moai were carved here from gigantic blocks of basalt and lava. Weighing many tons and measuring up to ten meters in height, their individual features were carved. I had heard that most figures only show the upper body while the lower half is still buried. Before I saw them, I thought that this meant that the moai had been covered by drifting sand over the ages. But that is not true at all, there is no sand. Only lava and rocks. The artists did not have ladders, so they dug deep pits in which they lowered or erected the moai until they could reach their faces to carve them.

Once a figure was finished, it was erected and “walked” down the mountain to spots all over the island – a mind boggling feat that National Geographic has tried to recreate. Why did they stop carving and moving? It seems like they were in the middle of ongoing projects when work came to a halt. No one knows…img_3604

Why did the Rapa Nui create these statues in the first place? Well, it is believed that well to do families ordered a moai in memory of an important member of the community. When this person died, male or female, a moai was constructed in his or her image and erected over their bones. Once the grey basalt figure, with or without red lava topknot had been given white corral eyes with a black obsidian center, it was believed that the deceased person’s spirit had enter the moai and would now protect Rapa Nui and its future generations.  img_3637

For details on Easter Island and its history, click here:http://www.mysteriousplaces.com/easter_island/

See a reenactment of ‘walking’ the statues here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvvES47OdmY

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