Manutara the sacred bird of Rapa Nui

The manutara is the sacred bird worshiped by the ancient inhabitants of Rapa Nui during the bird-man ritual or Tangata Manu that took place in the ceremonial village of Orongo. Know the legend and the stories that emerged from this mythical bird.

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Legend of the origin of the manutara

View of the islets from Orongo with Motu Nui in the background

View of the motu or islets from Orongo with Motu Nui in the background

Father Sebastián Englert, a Capuchin priest of German origin who lived on Easter Island for more than 30 years, studied its traditions and compiled the myths and legends that their inhabitants told him. Among them is the story of how the birds came to Rapa Nui and says:

“Formerly, when the first settlers arrived in Rapa Nui, there were no birds on the island. At that time there lived a witch or spirit called Hitu in the bay of Hanga Nui, near Tongariki. Hitu had a skull that she kept as treasure in the cavity of a rock. One day, when the sea grew, a great wave dragged the skull and carried it to the coast. Hitu threw herself into the water to retrieve it, but she could not reach it. Although she swam and swam, the skull floated among the waves and moved away.

Thus Hitu continued swimming day and night after the skull. When she was about to give up due to exhaustion, she glimpsed on the horizon the rocks of Motu Motiro Hiva (Sala y Gómez islet). When the skull reached the edge of the islet it became the creator god Make Make. Hitu reached the islet shortly after and both were welcomed by the spirit Haua who lived there because he was destined to care for the numerous seabirds that inhabited the small island.

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After a few days off, Make Make ordered Haua to bring him some pairs of birds to take them to Te Pito o Te Henua (which means navel of the world, one of the names by which Easter Island is known). When Make Make arrived on the island, he went to Hanga Nui and climbed the Poike hill where he left the birds free to reproduce, and later returned to his islet.

The following year, Make Make returned to Te Pito o Te Henua to see if the birds had multiplied, but discovered that the inhabitants had eaten all the eggs. Then, furious, he picked up the birds and took them to Vaihú, where he again released them to nest there. But the same thing happened in Vaihú, and the natives ate the eggs again. The following year, Make Make, desperate, took the birds to Vai Atare, a place located on the edge of the crater of the Rano Kau volcano. There finally, the villagers left a nest with only one egg, from which the first manutara bird of the island was born.

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But Make Make, to better ensure the breeding of the birds, returned again next year and left the birds on the Motu Nui islet in front of the Rano Kau volcano. There the birds multiplied in large numbers due to the difficult access of the small islet.

Later, Make Make, allowed the islanders to be able to collect the eggs of the birds in a certain period of the year, punishing those who collected them in times not allowed. In order not to provoke the wrath of God, the Ariki (king) and the priests decided to declare the eggs as Tapu (or taboo, that is, forbidden) during the closed periods. This taboo allowed the protection and development of seabirds in Rapa Nui”.

Manutara, the luck bird

Picture of Manutara or sooty tern

Picture of Manutara or sooty tern

The legend of the origin of birds on Easter Island has, like all myths, part of the truth. And it is precisely that Motu Nui, together with the nearby islets Motu Iti and Motu Kao Kao, is the place chosen to nest for most of the seabirds that visit the island.

The manutara, the protagonist of our history, also nested until a few years ago on the motu or islets. This bird has been identified with two kinds of tern and specifically with the sootie tern (Onychoprion fuscatus) who came to the island every spring to lay eggs.

The manutara measures about 40 cm, has the upper part of the head black and the neck and chest white. The upper part of the wings and the body is a dark gray color by which it receives its name.

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The meaning of Manutara or Manu Tara is “luck bird” in the Rapanui language. A name probably associated with its arrival coinciding with the end of winter and the beginning of a season with a greater abundance of eggs and greater fishing catches. It is possible that these reasons later made him the center of the bird-man ritual.

Unfortunately, the manutara can no longer honor its name because the bird does not visit Rapa Nui anymore due to the changes suffered in recent years in the fragile ecosystem of the island. However, as if the legend wanted to continue, the tern continues to nest in Motu Motiro Hiva, the uninhabited islet of Sala y Gómez, located 415 km northeast of the island and which is currently a protected marine reserve. Perhaps, in the near future, a new Make Make embodied in a marine biologist will introduce the species back into Rapa Nui.

The cult of the manutara

Several manutara figures in Ana Kai Tangata cave

Several manutara figures in Ana Kai Tangata cave

The importance of birds in the Rapanui culture is manifested through the numerous allusions to birds found in prints, paintings, sculptures and legends throughout its history.

This great relevance makes sense on 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, at the same time as feathers and bones to make tools and decorative objects.

More information about Easter Island fauna

Seabirds also indicate the location of shoals of fish when they fly over the surface of the sea in search of food, which was extremely useful to a people who based much of their livelihood on fishing.

It is not strange, therefore, that a religious cult arose around birds. There was a belief that the birds had a mystical relationship with the gods, and especially the seabirds that united the earth, the sea and the sky. Each year they came from “the hereafter”, an unknown land carrying messages from ancestors and spirits.

However, it is unknown exactly how the cult of the manutara was born and the bird man competition. A cult that replaced the veneration of the Moai statues with a new belief whose main ritual was carried out in spring coinciding with the migration of seabirds to nest in Motu Nui.

The bird-man competition

Pora competition in the Tapati Rapa Nui festival

Pora competition in the Tapati Rapa Nui festival recalls the race for the manutara egg

The participants of this risky competition had to leave from the ceremonial village of Orongo, descend the cliff of the Rano Kau volcano and swim between sharks and strong currents to the Motu Nui islet. The young survivors would wait for the arrival of the birds, hidden in caves, until the most skilled managed to obtain the first egg from the manutara. Then he would have to make the return journey without breaking the egg and deliver it to the leader of his clan, who would become the Tangata Manu or birdman and rule the island for a year.

Read more about the Tangata Manu competition

Interestingly, although this ritual focused on the manutara, many of the figures, engravings and petroglyphs representing the manutara and the tangata manu (half man half bird figure) rather remind the frigate bird (makohe in the Rapanui language) than the tern. In fact, the images show birds with hook-shaped peaks and gular sack typical of the frigate bird (Fregata minor).

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Some scholars point out that similar cults existed in other islands of the South Pacific, whose sacred bird was the frigate. And they believe that the first settlers of Easter Island who came from those distant lands brought with them that idea. But since these birds usually nest in trees, and were not very abundant in Rapa Nui, they chose the tern as a substitute for the frigate for their ritual.

In any case, the importance of Manutara for the ancient Rapanui people was reflected in a large part of the iconography present on the island. Possibly, the best example can be found in the rock art of Ana Kai Tangata, a cavern located on the coast near the Rano Kau volcano. In its natural vault several red and white manutara figures are represented along with ship drawings.

Representations of the manutara have also been found in some stone slabs of the houses of Orongo, in several petroglyphs engraved in the rocks, in incisions on wood carvings and forming part of the enigmatic writing of the Rongo Rongo tablets.

The legend is still alive

The manutara is a recurring motif in the jewels of Maea Moana

The manutara is a recurring motif in the jewels of Maea Moana

Although it is believed that the last bird-man competition took place in 1867, the memory of the manutara is still alive. The iconic image that represents the manutara is present in many of the souvenirs that can be obtained on Easter Island. The “luck bird” appears in precious jewels in the form of rings, pendants or earrings but also in pareos, polo shirts or shirts.

Another way to wear the manutara in an indelible way is with a Rapa Nui tattoo. The magnificent local tattoo artists like Mokomae or Ataranga usually include the mythical bird in their compositions, creating beautiful designs.

The image and meaning of the manutara has transcended the borders of the island, and today it is the name chosen by several local and foreign brands to represent their products or services. Thus, we can find the Manutara hotel, one of the classic Rapa Nui establishments; the Manutara yacht, a luxury sailboat that is rented with crew included; Manutara Rugby, a Chilean rugby team based in Santiago; and even one brand of wine and another of mineral water have been inspired by the old lucky bird.

But possibly, the name of Manutara has never been more appropriate than when it was used to baptize the plane that first covered the route between continental Chile and Rapa Nui. This unique event took place in 1951 when Captain Roberto Parragué Singer and 8 other crew members departed from La Serena and crossed the ocean aboard a Consolidated PBY Catalina model seaplane to land at Mataveri airport after 19 hours and 22 minutes of flight. This heroic deed served to break the isolation of the inhabitants of Rapa Nui with the outside world and begin a new stage of social and tourist development on Easter Island.

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