Religion and beliefs
The Easter Island inhabitants’ life, as well as in Polynesian cultures, was organized around their Rapa Nui religion and spiritual beliefs. These beliefs and their evolution significantly affected the course of history.
The religious rituals started from birth, when the umbilical cord was cut, and extended through their whole lives, including rituals for the first haircut, the first tattoos, initiation and coming of age rituals.
But perhaps the most important rituals, that most affected Rapa Nui art and history, were the ones associated with death. The Rapa Nui believed that their forefathers’ spirits had the ability to come to their aid in case it was necessary, since the spirit remained around his relatives for a long time before leaving for good. This spiritual energy or mana, attributed mostly to chiefs and important members of society, had the ability to influence events for a long time.
This cult to the ancestors led to the development of a funeral ritual which consisted in wrapping the bodies in vegetable fabric and expose them to open air inside the ahu until their decomposition. Finally, the bones were washed and deposited in a funeral chamber in the same ahu, so that the spirit could reunite with its ancestors.
But above all else, the ancestor cult gave way to the most representative Easter Island characteristic, the moai. When a tribe chief or any of the important members dies, a moai was ordered to be sculpted in the Rano Raraku quarry and was later transported to its village and placed on an ahu or ceremonious altar. Once placed on its altar, the eyes and pukao were placed (a type of hat carved from red scoria), at which moment the moai obtained their mana and could exercise their power. There were more than 300 ahus on the whole island and more than 600 moai, mainly in the coastal regions and always facing their village, which it protected.
But the crisis and conflicts within the population, due to the scarcity of food, which happened between the 17th and 18th centuries, caused a decline in the moais and ancestor cult era, giving way to a new religious and political order.
The belief in Make-Make or creating god prevails even more strongly and it is at this point that the Tangata Manu or Birdman ceremony starts being celebrated, through which the island’s governors are chosen. In this way a member of the working class could still gain political power, since the competition for the first manutara (Easter Island seagull) egg requires a great strength and physical prowess.
There were also a series of prohibitions and precepts that governed the daily life of Rapanui, who were known by the name of tapu (taboo). The tapu were bans or prohibitions to do certain things, such as getting a haircut, or determining areas closed for fishing rights or other circumstances.