I am standing on the cusp of Rano Kau crater at the far end of Orongo village. To the left, avocado trees and native grasses line the crater floor and deep pools of ink-like water are ringed by swamplands. To the right, the spear-like island of Motu Kau Kau rises from the sea like a ship’s mast alongside Motu Nui and Motu Iti—the same islands that took center stage for the enthralling “Tangata Manu” Birdman competition of Rapa Nui.
Rapa Nui, or Easter Island as it is more widely known, lies more than 2,000 miles off the coast of its parent country, Chile. The island is as mysterious as it is magnificent, and has been at the top of my bucket list since I first laid eyes on the massive statues of the moai in a National Geographic magazine. For travelers, the main attraction on this island is, of course, the moai—nearly 1,000 giant statues whose existence and significance remain a mystery—but the island also holds a captivating story about the Birdman Cult. During my three-day trip here in the fall of 2019, I explored the mystical statues and learned about this fascinating Birdman belief. Here are some of my favorite photos.
In 1995, Rapa Nui National Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and covers most of the island.
We began with a visit to Tahai near the coast, where we learned of Dr. William Mulloy, a former professor from the University of Wyoming who pioneered efforts to restore many of the moai statues and ahus (platforms and ceremonial sites). You can see the damages on one of the moai, as well as the detail of the coral and obsidian rock to create eyes. Most of the statues have sockets for eyes—and some even have long fingers at their sides!
Though I do not have a photo, this place is incredible during sunset, when the sun dips below the horizon, silhouetting the moai.
From the coast, we headed inland to Ahu Akivi, one of the only ahus in the mountains, and where the statues face the ocean. You begin to wonder how they were able to move these statues over such distances and elevations.
Each statue is roughly 14 tons and stands nearly 13 feet tall, with the larger moai weighing up to 65 tons! Historians believe the statues were made sometime before 1600 AD, and evidence supports that the island was once flourishing with palm trees that were used to transport the statues to their ahus all around the island.
From the mountains, we headed to the quarry, Rano Raraku, where most (if not all) of the moai were carved. Here, we could view the moai in their varying degrees of creation. Some still lay half-buried and half-carved, while others lean into the hillside at different angles.
Our final stop was Ahu Tongariki, the most iconic ahu of them all, where 15 moai stand side-by-side with the ocean at their backs. A tsunami had destroyed parts of the ahu in the 1960s and it was fully restored in 1995. During the summer solstice, these moai face the sunset, indicating a deep connection to the people of Rapa Nui with their natural surroundings.
In all, nearly 1,000 moai were created by the Rapa Nui people. The statues were the main focus of Rapa Nui religion until they were replaced with the Birdman, which leads us to Rano Kau and Orongo.
Oral traditions hint that as foreigners discovered Easter Island and as the resources to create the moai dwindled, Rapa Nui eventually shifted their faith to the fascinating Birdman Cult. In an attempt to keep the peace through a form of leadership, men from all over the island would compete to be the island’s next chief through a series of events. These events include scaling down (and later back up) a 1,000-foot cliff at Orongo, paddling through shark-infested waters to the smaller islands of Motu Nui and Motu Iti, and snatching the first egg of the migratory sooty tern bird. The winner was crowned “Tangata Manu” (Bird Man) and became Rapa Nui’s leader for the year. Gazing over the cliffs from Orongo, it’s difficult to imagine people climbing them without ropes or harnesses. But then again, everything on this island, from its tropical landscapes to its moai, is beyond imagination. You must experience it for yourself.
—Text and photos by WT staff Kirstina Bolton Motamedi, Easter Island Extension.