Orongo, the ceremonial village
The ceremonial village of Orongo is one of the most interesting and spectacular archaeological sites on Easter Island. Here an ancient ritual that still inspires the competitions of the Tapati Rapa Nui festival took place.
A sacred and spectacular site
The archaeological site of Orongo is located in the southwestern part of the Rano Kau volcano, in a narrow strip between the edge of the crater that surrounds the lagoon and the cliff that descends almost perpendicular to the sea, in front of the Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao Kao islets.
The village of Orongo was inhabited seasonally by the chiefs and main characters of the ancient tribes, who hoped to collect the first sacred egg of the manutara bird in the months of spring.
It was a celebration of religious origin, in honor of the creator god Make Make, which reached its climax during the Tangata Manu competition. Those who took part in this ceremony, lived during that time in houses that were specially built for this purpose and that have a special architectural type.
The houses of the ceremonial village
It is believed that the first Orongo constructions were not related to the manutara cult. In fact, just before the start of the village, on the edge that looks at the lagoon, there are the remains of a small ahu or platform. Only the base at ground level of a single moai is conserved, which according to some hypothesis could be the famous Hoa Hakananai’a moai.
In front of the ahu some holes in the stones can be seen, which could have been used as an astronomical observatory to determine the position of the sun.
The first stone houses in Orongo seem to have been built around 1400 AD. from the outcrop of rocks that rises in what would now be the center of the village.
Over time and especially around the Tangata Manu ceremony, 54 houses lined up on the edge of the crater were built, forming three independent sets facing the sea. Almost all the houses were looted and destroyed during the different European expeditions and rebuilt several times in the last decades.
At the edges of the crater there are laminar basalt slabs, called keho. This was the material used to built the thick stuffed walls that reach 2 meters wide. The roof is formed by longer slabs, placed horizontally on the walls as a vault. On these they put other smaller slabs. Finally, the roof was covered with a thick filling of earth and stones on which the grass grew, giving stability to the construction and protection against the weather.
The houses have an oval floor with a variable length of between 6 to 12 meters and a maximum width of about 2 meters. The interior height is scarce, from 1 to 2 meters in the best of cases, and in most of them is not possible to stand up. Some are connected to each other by narrow corridors.
The access to the houses is located in the front that gives to the sea and its reduced size in square form, forces to enter and to leave crawling and even to creep. This was the only opening in the structure through which the light penetrated, so that the dark, difficult-to-ventilate interior was only used for sleeping.
Upon entering the village, near the edge of the cliff, there are two houses that were left unrestored intentionally, to appreciate its internal structure.
The idea of building houses with solid walls here instead of using vegetable fibers as in the traditional boat-houses (hare vaka or hare paenga) found in the rest of the island, arose from the need to protect themselves from the strong winds that whip this place.
In fact, it seems that the first housing option was the hare paenga, as evidenced by the recycled basalt blocks of old boat-houses found in some walls and especially in the openings of some of the narrow doors. However, the adverse weather, the availability of basalt slabs as raw material and the application of a simpler construction technique led to the design of a unique architectural ensemble on the island.
The paintings of Orongo
Inside some of the houses, interesting paintings related to the bird-man ceremony have been found. Generally the large vertical slabs on the wall opposite the entrance to the house were painted, so that they received the lighting from outside.
Natural red, black and white pigments were used to represent different designs. The most repeated are the figure of the Tangata Manu or bird-man, alone or in pairs; the figure of the Ao (ceremonial staff in the shape of an oar) with very schematic human faces; and the mask of the god Make Make with large orbits.
Another very interesting and repeated motif is that of the European sailing ships, similar to those found in Ana Kai Tangata’s cave. This joint representation of boats and birds found both in the cave and in the ritual village confirms a strong connection between both places.
The researchers suggest that during a certain period of history the islanders considered European visitors as messengers of the afterlife, arriving and disappearing in the ocean as well as migratory birds. This curious relationship could have been reinforced by the casual fact that a large part of the visits of the ships arriving on Easter Island coincided with the southern spring and autumn, when the bird-man ceremony took place.
Unfortunately, a great part of the paintings have been lost, since many of those slabs were plundered by successive expeditions and are now shown in several museums around the world. Of the few that remain in their place of origin, their state of conservation has been affected due to the interior humidity of the houses, reason why the details and colors are hardly recognized.
The Hoa Hakanani’a Moai
One of the most impressive elements of the village of Orongo was a basalt moai called Hoa Hakananai’a, which could be translated as “the breakwater”. This moai, 2.5 meters high, is unique not only because it was made in basalt, the hardest raw material available, but also because it represents the continuity and change that was happening in the ancient culture of Rapa Nui.
This moai created a crucial connection between the ancient cult of the ancestors and the new cult of the bird-man. On his forehead shows the classic form of the period of the flowering of the large statues and on the back, all the motifs representing the following phase are recorded: tangata manu (bird-man), ao (double spade rowing, symbol of power), and komari (female vulva, symbol of fertility).
Read more about Hoa Hakananai’a, the stolen friend
This exceptional moai, which could have been part of the primitive ahu of Orongo, was semi-buried inside one of the houses in the central sector of the village, called Taura Renga. It was extracted in 1868 by the crew of the English battleship Topaze, and has since been housed in the British Museum in London. The other name for which this moai is sadly known is “the stolen friend“.
The petroglyphs of Orongo
The rocks around the village are covered with more than 1,700 petroglyphs, making Orongo the place with the highest concentration of rock art on the island.
Although the stone engravings have been found in several points of Orongo, the focus that attracts all the attention is the last set of houses located at the bottom end of the cliff, which descends to the huge “bite” of the crater known as Kari Kari.
In this place called Mata Ngarau, the construction, that contains six individual chambers connected to each other, is attached to two natural sets of rocks, forming a semicircle that surrounds a more or less flat stone pavement.
Both the rocks and the pavement are almost completely covered with engravings, some of them very erased by the passage of time. A part of the engravings is covered by the structure of the houses, which shows that some had to be done before its construction.
The main theme or motif that stands out among the hundreds of reliefs, is a figure with a human body in a fetal position and a bird’s head with a long beak, which seems to represent the frigate bird (although the ritual was based on the terns which have short beaks). This image represents the mythological being known as Tangata Manu or bird-man.
Except for some cases, all the images appear in profile, some represent pairs of these beings faced and three of them show the bird-man holding an egg in his hand. More than 400 figures of this class in Orongo have been counted. One possible interpretation is that each image represents a winner of the competition.
Apart from the abundant silhouettes of the tangata manu, the rest of the petroglyphs also show animals such as seabirds, fish and turtles; and two other very repeated motifs.
The first is a face with large eyes, similar to a mask that is believed to represent the Make Make god. In some of these faces there is a prominent nose reminiscent of male genitals.
The second is the komari or female vulva which is the most common design in rock art on the island. In Orongo there are more than 300 and they are also found inside the ceremonial houses. This interest in the symbols of fertility is more relevant in the last phase of the ancient Rapanui culture, since many are engraved over the drawings of the bird-men.
The birdman ceremony
It is not known in detail how the competition of the bird-man or tangata manu arose. According to the tradition, once the cult of the ancestors that moai represented was abandoned and the loss of prestige of the old political and religious order was increasing, opposing tribal groups arise eager to take power.
Towards the end of the 17th century, it is established that the best way to achieve power is through an annual competition based in Orongo, where the winner would enjoy a series of rights and privileges over his rivals during his term of office.
As spring approached, the most powerful groups organized themselves to participate in the competition. They met in the great village of Mataveri, and then went up at the opportune moment to Orongo. Each clan elected a representative called the hopu manu.
Learn more about the Tangata Manu competition
At the culminating moment of the festivities and rituals, they had to descend the cliff of Orongo and swim to the Motu Nui with the help of reed floats called pora.
There they had to wait for the arrival of the sea birds, until some of them could get the first egg of the Manutara. The winner announced to his team the result, which immediately turned his boss into the one chosen by Make Make to become the tangata manu of that season, until the following spring.
Currently, some of the tests that take place during the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival are inspired by the bird-man competition, so whoever is lucky enough to attend will be able to recall the ancient traditions of the island.
Tips for visiting Orongo
The visit of Orongo can be done by hiring some of the excursions offered by most of the island’s tourism agencies. This archaeological site is usually included in any of the half day tours in which Ana Kai Tangata’s cave and Rano KAu volcano are also visited.
More information about Easter Island Tours
The other option is to do it on your own. In that case you would have to rent a vehicle or walk.
In any case, it is necessary to buy in advance the ticket to the Rapa Nui National Park to enter the site. Although the entry is valid for 10 days to visit the different sites of interest, the visit to Orongo and the quarry of the Rano Raraku volcano can only be done once.
More information about the Rapa Nui National Park
The ticket must be presented at the National Park premises, whose access remains open from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. Here several explanatory panels of the place are exhibited and there are toilets for the use of the visitors.
It is recommendable to bring some warm clothing, because due to the height and the unprotected position facing the ocean, Orongo is usually quite windy and sometimes it can be cold.
Although the visit to Orongo is impressive at any time, it stands out especially at sunset, since the sun illuminates the houses and petroglyphs with its warm light while it is setting behind the mythical islets.
How to get to Orongo
There are several ways to get to Orongo by car or on foot. By car, from Hanga Roa you have to take the main road Atamu Tekena until cross the the airport road. There turn right, pass the only gas station on the island and just continue all the way up until you reach the end of it. There is a parking lot where you can leave the vehicle.
You can also ascend by bicycle along the same road. The climb is quite steep but if you are in good fit, the views and the pleasure of reaching pedaling to Orongo are worth it.
On the ascent road, before arriving at the car park, there is a place called “the viewpoint of the island” from where you get a magnificent view of the runway of Mataveri airport, Hanga Roa town and in the background the Terevaka, the highest point of Easter Island.
To walk, you have to follow the Te Ara or Te Ao path that starts from the gardens of the CONAF, passing the cave of Ana Kai Tangata, and that was used in the Tangata Manu ceremony by the participants to go up to the village ritual. The route is more or less marked and in any case it is difficult to get lost, in case of doubt you must always go up.
The walk to the viewpoint of the Rano Kau volcano takes about an hour. Once here you can continue on the road to cover the last kilometer or follow the narrow path that skirts the crater until you reach Orongo. In this last case, you can enjoy stunning views of the volcano.