Tangata Manu, the Easter Island birdman
Learn about the incredible competition that took place at Orongo to choose the Tangata Manu or Easter Island birdman who would rule the island during one year.
The cult of the manutara bird
The importance of birds in the culture of Easter Island is manifested through the numerous allusions to birds found in engravings, paintings, sculptures and legends throughout its history.
This great relevance makes sense in a remote and isolated island like Rapa Nui, in which there were no large mammals or reptiles, and in which birds were the only living beings close to humans, which also provided an interesting source of protein in shape of meat and eggs.
More information about Easter Island wildlife
Therefore, It is not strange that a religious cult arose around birds. There was a belief that birds had a mystical relationship with gods, and especially, the seabirds that united the earth, the sea and the sky.
Manutara, the luck bird
It is not known exactly how the cult to the manutara and the competition of the birdman arose. This belief around the manutara, which could be translated as the “luck bird” and which has been identified with the white-tipped tern (Sterna fuscata), a migratory seabird that arrived on the island every spring to lay its eggs. Currently it is no longer possible to see the tern, because it has not return on the island for years.
At some point in history, which some studies place at the beginning of the 18th century, the cult of deified ancestors, represented by the moai statues, is abandoned due to a loss of prestige of the old political and religious order.
An excellent example of this transition between old and new beliefs is the moai Hoa Hakananaia. On the back of the ancient idol there are reliefs that express the new cult of birdman.
Gradually the old beliefs are replaced by new rites related to fertility and linked to a single divinity, the creator god Make Make.
In the beginning, the celebration of the bird man competition had a religious character in honor of Make Make. According to tradition, the creator god had brought the marine birds from Motu Motiro Hiva (the current Sala y Gómez islets) to the island, where they nest during the spring and summer months.
Later, due to the rise of the new clans led by the matato’a or warrior leaders, the ceremony took on a more political profile, becoming a system that allowed the warrior class to justify its power.
Now, the leaders would be chosen among the winners of an annual competition, and not for hereditary or warlike reasons, which was fairer for all parties. With the new method leadership was alternated between different groups, based on a ritual race for an egg. The winner of this original test was consecrated as the bird man or tangata manu, becoming the representative of Make Make on earth for a year, a period during which his group receive special privileges.
The Ao path, from Mataveri to Orongo
The ritual began in the village of Mataveri, at the foot of the Rano Kau volcano. There, the chiefs of the most important clans accompanied by their families resided in large communal boat-houses. During the months that they passed there, celebrations with feasts and dances were organized, during which, according to tradition, several victims of the rival clans were sacrificed and then devoured. It seems that the nearby cave of Ana Kai Tangata could be one of the scenarios chosen for these terrible practices.
Read more about Ana Kai Tangata
At a certain time, the most powerful groups aspiring to the title of bird man were organized to participate in the competition. Some priests, called “ivi atua“, prophesied who would be chosen and designated the hopu manu or young servants of the leaders, who would compete on behalf of their clan.
At the beginning of July, all participants, only male, climbed the slope of the Rano Kau volcano to the village of Orongo, along a path known as Te Ara or Te Ao, or “the road of Ao”.
Possibly the name comes from the Ao, a type of scepter or baton that was used in the rites related to the manutara. The Ao is shaped like an oar about two meters long with a shovel at each end. Some were adorned with paintings of schematic faces, whose design has also been found in the interior slabs of the Orongo houses.
By extension, it seems that the dominant members who had the privilege of participating were also called by that name.
The ceremonial village of Orongo
The ancient cult of the ancestors, which took place in the religious centers of each family, now moves to a new center of annual competition for power installed in the ceremonial village of Orongo.
Here the contenders lived temporarily, in a series of 54 stone houses built on the impressive rim of the Rano Kau crater.
Read more about Orongo, the ceremonial village
In the southwestern corner of the village there is still a group of houses, called Mata Ngarau used by the Maori Rongonrongo sages who recited the tablets and sang throughout the day invoking the Make Make god.
The three motu or islets
From this place, you can have the best view of the islets where the fundamental stage of the competition was carried out: the search for the manutara egg.
A thousand meters from the base of the cliff, the three islets Motu Kao Kao (“sharp island”), Motu Iti (“small island”) and Motu Nui (“large island”) can be seen. Here, a great variety of marine birds arrived to nest every spring, of which only a few can be observed at present. Among the most important highlights the frigate bird (makohe), which can be seen planning alone and whose head and beak is more like the reliefs of the tangata manu than the manutara in which the rite was based.
The race for the sacred egg
The hopu manu, true participants of the test, remained in Orongo with their leaders and other assistants until the visit of the Ariki Henua or supreme ruler, who gave them the order of departure.
Then, the hopu hanu descended by an almost vertical cliff of 300 meters to reach the shore. Those who arrived here safe and sound, swam to Motu Nui, the largest and farthest islet, with the help of a pora or float made with totora fibers. The journey of more than a kilometer was made in a sea shaken by strong currents and visited by sharks.
Once the first stage of the race was over, the contestants had to wait for several days or even weeks for the arrival of the birds, which used to happen at the beginning of September.
In Motu Nui, engravings and paintings have been found in eight of the more than twenty caves that the young people used to take refuge, among which stands out an imposing face painted in red of Make Make.
Read more about Easter Island caves
Some caves were prepared as graves and in another there was a small basalt moai that marked the division of the island through the center, and which is now exhibited in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.
After a tense wait, in which frictions and skirmishes took place for stealing food from the rivals, the birds came to the islet with loud squawking sounds to nest.
Shave your head, you have the egg!
When a hopu manu was lucky enough to get the first manutara egg, he went to one end of Motu Nui where a rock called Puku Rangi Manu is located. From there, the egg holder announced his success by loudly shouting his leader’s name and the expression “Ka varu te puoko” which means “shave your head”.
The exciting and expected cry was heard by a watchman who was in a cave located at the bottom of the cliff wall, known as “Haka hongo manu” that means “listening to the birds.”
The winner put the sacred egg in a band that tied to his forehead and threw himself into the sea to swim back to Orongo. He still had to struggle to present the egg intact, get rid of the waves breaking against the rocks and avoid falling down during his ascent. At times, almost all competitors died during the test.
The Tangata Manu ritual
When the hopu manu finally arrived at Orongo, he gave the egg to his leader, thus becoming the one chosen by Make Make to be the tangata manu of that season, until the following spring. As a “white smoke” the appointment was announced by lighting a bonfire on the opposite edge of the volcano.
The receiver of that mystic power or mana was anointed with the symbols of his new status. He had to shave his head completely, put on a wig of human hair and was painted with the ritual colors, white and red. He received the Ao, the symbol of power, and finally he began the procession along the Ao road, going down to Mataveri to continue his triumphal march through a good part of the island.
It is not known with certainty but it seems that, as a reminder of each investiture of the bird man, a relief of a figure with the body of a human and the head of a bird was carved in the rocks of Orongo and especially close to the houses of Mata Ngarau.
This could be a gesture of thanks to Make Make for granting them their protection and their fortune, as it is still done today by the faithful who receive the gifts requested from their saints. There have been more than 100 petroglyphs of the tangata manu sculpted in the rocks and according to that interpretation they would indicate the number of winners of the competition.
The isolation of the winner
Although the exact details of the rituals are not known, tradition says that the tangata manu was considered “tapu” or taboo, that is, a sacred person for a year, and no one could approach or touch him, not even his wife or children. For that reason he was held for at least six months, in Anakena or more frequently in the foothills of the Rano Raraku volcano depending on the clan to which he belonged.
He stayed in a house prepared for him, where he hung the empty and dried egg, which he shared only with an ivi atua. a type of priest dedicated exclusively to his service. The chosen one did not bathe and spent the day sleeping during a rather monotonous confinement that was interrupted only by the food offerings he received.
After a period of one year, the tangata manu ceased to be so and returned to his normal life, although he would be accompanied forever by the respect and consideration of others.
The hopu manu also retired from social life although he could reside in his own home, where he was given food that he was forbidden to touch with the hand that had collected the sacred egg.
At first glance, it seems that the prize for the winners was not very enviable, but the important thing was that the power granted ensured the privileges of their group and the control of food production.
Decline and last competitions
Although the system created to distribute power represented a good political solution, over time it failed because the winning clan did not want to lose the privileges achieved. To avoid this, the other groups of the rival clans were not allowed to participate in the competition, which kept them in power for many years.
Logically, this triggered many tribal conflicts reflected in the oral tradition through terrifying legends, in which there is no lack of references to cannibalism.
In that context, the tangata manu cult degenerated over the years, introducing changes such as having more than one birdman per season and other novelties willing to favor the ruling clan. This was how it evolved until the arrival of the first missionaries who considered this practice contrary to the Christian faith and ended up prohibiting it.
There are no exact data on how long this ritual lasted. If one assumes that the Orongo reliefs represent the winners of each year, it could be estimated that it began in the mid-18th century.
Some names of these winners are also kept, collected by the investigator Katherine Routledge during their stay on the island, who would have given their name to the year of their “reign”.
The last registered tangata manu was called Rokunga, who would have been the winner in the year 1866 or 1867. With him, the old era definitively ended, when the external influences had already caused a tremendous impact on the population, social order and culture.
The memory of birdman still lives
Despite the long time elapsed since the election of the last tangata manu, the spirit of the bird man is still very present in Easter Island. The memory of this original ceremony can be felt during the ascent walk to the Rano Kau volcano by the Te Ara or Te Ao trail, visiting the impressive village of Orongo or when a boat ride is made to the Motu or islets.
But the best occasion to relive the emotion felt by the participants of this extreme competition is during the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival, which is celebrated the first half of February. Several of the cultural and sports events that take place during the most important festival of the island, are inspired by the strength and bravery of the ancient hopu manu.
Read more about Tapati Rapa Nui Festival
In November, you can also see a reflection of the ancient ancestral ceremony during the Koro Nui Tupuna. This is a tournament in which the students of the local schools have to show their skills in various physical and cultural tests.
Likewise, the iconic images that represents the tangata manu and the manutara can be found in many of the souvenirs that can be obtained in Easter Island. From precious jewelry in the form of rings, pendants or earrings to sarongs, t-shirts or polynesian style shirts. Even the Chilean wine brand Manutara has been inspired by the ancient ritual to name and design the bottles of its different varieties.
Finally the figure of the bird man came back to life in the film “Rapa Nui” produced by Kevin Kostner in 1994. The best scene of the movie shows in an exciting way what could have been this risky competition.