22 Sep 2017

Moving Moai and the Birdman Battle

By Margriet Ruurs

Note: This is the second of two posts by Margriet about Rapa Nui. To see the first, go to https://sci-why.blogspot.ca/2017/09/exploring-world-through-travel-rapa.html

Walking along the steep cliffs of the southwest coast of Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, I gaze down on foaming white waves pounding the shore of a small island: Moto Nui. This is where history was made.

The view of Moto Nui from the cliffs of the larger island, Rapa Nui.
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 era of the moai (stone figure) 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.

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

The young men had to bring back the first egg laid by birds returning in spring. They tucked this egg into a woven headband, swam the ocean and climbed the cliff to hand the egg, unbroken, to the chief.

I saw tiny rock houses at Orongo and scattered rocks carved with birdman and boat pictures. We 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 iconic face of Easter Island.


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 were 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.

The moai were carved here from gigantic blocks of basalt and lava. Weighing many tons and measuring up to ten metres 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 raised 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 people stop carving and moving the figures? It seems like they were in the middle of ongoing projects when work came to a halt. No one knows why.

Why did the Rapa Nui create these statues in the first place? Scientists believe 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 coral eyes with a black obsidian center, it was believed that the deceased person’s spirit had entered the moai and would now protect Rapa Nui and its future generations.



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

All photos by Margriet and Kies Ruurs. For more of the Ruurs's travel adventures, visit their blog, Globetrotting Grandparents.

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