Orongo, the ceremonial village
The ceremonial village of Orongo, a Rapa Nui word that means “The Call”, is majestically nestled on a narrow strip of about 250 meters, between the edge of the Rano Kau crater and a 300-meter cliff that plunges steeply into the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, Orongo enjoys the most spectacular environment in Easter Island.
During the period of the moais and the ancestor cult, Orongo was a ceremonial center where initiation rites and the entry of children into adulthood were practiced, but it was never a proper village. At no point in history Orongo served as a permanent residence, due to difficult access and lack of direct access to the sea, so there are hardly any moais or platforms. However, the increased importance of Orongo emerged along with the Tangata Manu (birdman) cult and the Make-Make god, in the late seventeenth century.
During the tribal crisis due to lack of resources, which caused a decline in faith in the moais and their chiefs and priests, the warrior class or Matato’a took power creating a new religion based on the Birdman Competition. In this new order, who held power was determined by their physical prowess and not their rank or status. It was at Orongo where priests and members of each tribe, gathered to witness the Birdman Competition. The goal was to obtain the first manutara (Easter Island seagull) egg and with it the power to govern the island for a year.
One of the first images that one sees upon arrival at the ceremonial village is that of the three motus or islets, which are just off the coast. These are, Motu Kao Kao, meaning “narrow islet”, shaped like a needle; Motu Iti or “small islet”; and Motu Nui or “big islet”, which is the most important of the three; as it was here where hopu manu or competitors would wait for the first manutara egg. Going up the trail, you get a complete view of Orongo, which gives an idea of how this ceremonial village used to be, with its 53 houses made of basalt stone slab maintaining the typical houseboat design that can be found to throughout the island.
Inside the houses, the walls have are adorned with paintings and symbols of leadership, poultry and dance oars, made primarily in red and white. To the left, behind the gazebo, you can see two houses that were left unrestored; in the state they were in when the archaeologist William Mulloy and a group of islanders reconstructed the village from 1974 to 1976. The original structures were not only damaged by environmental influences (the wind here is five times stronger than in Hanga Roa), but also by the first visitors, who entered houses and took painted tablets with them as “trophies”.
Below you can see a house that has been partially restored, with completed walls but only a halfway-finished ceiling, which allows you to appreciate the original structure. Built with basalt slabs (known as Keho) taken from inside the crater, they were made with double walls, i.e. with an inner wall, an outer and mud in between. This type of construction provided effective protection against strong winds.
The inside area consists of a single elliptical space that was used exclusively for sleeping; all other daily activities were performed in the open areas of the village. Finally, the structure is roofed with slabs that progressively lean forward and a large central stone which held the weight of the roof. The top was covered with soil and grass to protect the inside from rain and to strengthen the whole structure.
Upon touring the row of restored houses, you will see that almost all of their entrances look towards Motu Nui, where the Birdman Competition took place. The entrances are remarkably small and forced you to enter almost on your knees. This ensured its inhabitants protection against inclement weather and that only one person could enter at a time, making houses easier to defend if necessary. Some of the houses have multiple entrances and others are connected to each other, like rabbit holes.
On the left, before the descent, there is a big house with four separate entrances, known as Taura Renga. In this house, in 1868, the crew of the English ship Topaze took the famous moai, which the natives call Hoa Hakananai’a (meaning “stolen or hidden friend”), which is currently on display in the British Museum in London. This 2.5-meter high sculpture, unlike the majority, was carved out of basalt and is a unique piece with infinite historical value. It had figures carved on its back representing the Birdman, ritual and symbols of fertility, so it embodies the syncretism between the moai period and the period of the Tangata Manu cult. It is believed to have had an important role in the coronation ceremony of the winners of the competition.
Orongo houses are spread over several levels up the peninsula formed by the crater and the cliff, where the space gets so narrow that only one row of houses fit on the edge of the cliff. The last house of the village has a stirring location on the edge between the cliff and the crater rim. It is known as Mata Ngara’u, and it was destined to the priests who ran the ceremonies in honor of the gods and recited the Rongo Rongo tablets during the month-long Tangata Manu celebration. Unlike the other houses, it has many entrances arranged in a semicircle.
One of the most amazing things is that in each of the rocks found in front of this house, there are several petroglyph engravings representing Birdmen, the Make-Make creator god and Komaris (female fertility symbols). The American scholar, Georgia Lee, a rock art expert, counted them and reached up to 1,700 petroglyphs there, which makes it the most important petroglyphs site in all of Easter Island. Unfortunately, access to this area is restricted due to the building’s fragility and, in order to access the engravings, you have to walk on what the roof of the Mata Ngara’u house.
If you look closely, you will notice that the design of the eyes and nose of the Make-Make god figure has obvious phallic connotations, which is natural for a god who represents fertility, reproduction and abundance; a god who became very important when the island’s resources became scarce. On its back, you can distinguish the route that the competitors followed to reach Motu Nui. They came down the inside of the crater, following a narrow road up to Kari Kari, which is the crater’s “bitten” wall; from there they climbed down the cliff to the sea and swam the 2km to the motu. The greatest danger on this trip was not only the risk of falling, but also the possibility of running into sharks while swimming toward their destination.
From Mata Ngara’u, following the path along the crater, there are a few steps. Climbing these to the top, several more rows of houses can be seen. No one knows for sure, but it is possible that the status of the tribe determined who had the right to occupy the houses with the best views of the sea and Motu Nui. Finally, on the journey back, right at the intersection of the two trails, you can see the remains of a small ahu, the only one in Orongo. Because of its size and simple design, it is a very old structure. The depressions in the rock in front of the platform had a purpose that has yet to be determined. Some studies speak of astronomical reference points, mainly because the ahu aligns with Poike Peninsula, at the eastern end of the island, but it is only an unproven theory.
Due to the fragility of this archaeological site, inclement weather in the area, and the actions of irresponsible guest, in the 1990s Orongo was on the World Monuments Fund list as one of the 100 most threatened sites in the world; but this changed when the current route was established through well-defined trails and access to the most vulnerable areas was limited. As a rule of the Rapa Nui National Park, each visitor has to register upon arrival at the CONAF visitor center and pay entry or submit proof of having done so previously. This, like Rano Raraku and the airport, is one of the places where you can buy an entrance ticket to the National Park, which is valid for five days and allows repeat visits as often as you want.
The value of the tickets is $20 USD or 10,000 pesos for Chilean or domestic residents, $60 USD or 30,000 pesos for foreigners and $10 USD or 5,000 pesos for children.