Rapa Nui / Geography, History and Religion

(from Peter H. Buck, Vikings of the Pacific, University of Chicago Press, 1938. pp. 228-236)

Go to the island of my dreams and seek for a
beautiful beach upon which the king may dwell.

--Legend of Hotu-Matua


Polynesian Settlement: Hotu Matua

King Hotu-Matua dwelt in the land of Marae-renga and he dreamed of an island with a beautiful beach that lay over the eastern horizon. He sent men on a canoe named Oraora-miro to locate a beach on his dream island. He followed in their wake in his great double canoe, ninety feet long and six feet deep. One hull bore the name Oteka and the other Qua. The king was accompanied by the master craftsman, Tu-koihu, in another canoe. After many days' sail, the two vessels sighted an island that Horu-matua knew to be the island of his dreams. As they approached the western end of the island, the two vessels separated, the king to survey the south coast and Tu-koihu the north. The king's ship sailed rapidly and paddles were plied to increase the speed. The king's ship rounded the eastern end of the island without having seen the beach for which he searched. On the north coast he saw the canoe of Tu-koihu paddling in to a beach that he recognized as the beach of his dream. It would never do for Tu-koihu to land before him, so he invoked his gods with the magic words, 'Ka hakamau te konekone' (Stay the paddling). The paddles of Tu-koihu's crew stayed motionless in the water, and the sea seethed as the king's paddlers raced for the shore. The double prow of the king's ship ran up on the sands of Anakena, and Hotu-matua stepped ashore onto a beautiful beach fit for a king to dwell upon. And thus Hotu-matua added his name to the roll of famous navigators by discovering the eastern outpost that forms the apex of the Polynesian triangle. (For another version of the story of Hotu-Matua, click here.)



Easter Island is 1,500 miles from Mangareva, 1,100 miles from Pitcairn, and 2,030 miles from South America. Its greatest length is thirteen miles and its area is sixty-seven square miles. It is a volcanic island with a dry, arid soil, no streams, and but slight rainfall. Of a number of extinct craters, Rano Aroi rises to a height of 6oo feet.

Click here for Map.

Click here for an Aerial Photo: Southwest tip of Rapa Nui: the crater of Rano Kau; offshore, the pinnacle of Motu Kao Kao; from Georgia Lee, "The Rock Art of Easter Isalnd." Los Angeles: UCLA, 1992. Photo by W.D. Hyder, 1983.


European Contact

The island was sighted by the Dutch navigator, Roggeveen, on Easter Sunday, 1722. At that time it was occupied by a people of Polynesian stock speaking a Polynesian language. Later European voyagers, including Gonzalez and Cook, stopped at Easter Island and brought with them the diseases that decimated the populations of all Pacific Islands. In i 862, Peruvians carried off large numbers of the Easter Islanders into slavery. Of a remnant of 100 sent back after representation by the British and French Governments, 85 died of smallpox at sea and the 15 who were landed spread the disease throughout the island so that thousands died. A conservative estimate of the population before European contact is from 3000 to 4000. Fifteen years after the first depredations of the slavers, the population had dwindled to 111, of whom but 26 were females. The census taken in 1934 gave the total population at 456.

A French adventurer named Dutroux Bornier established himself on the island in 1870 and became so obnoxious that the Catholic missionary and his flock fled to Mangareva. More would have left but the schooner was crowded to the limit. Those who were forced to remain behind finally disposed of the foreign tyrant in the only suitable manner. The exiled inhabitants returned after the death of Bornier, but one wonders how many of the one hundred and eleven survivors were fitted to pass on the torch of knowledge to their descendants. No native population has been subjected to such a succession of atrocities and disintegrating influences as the people of Easter Island. It is no wonder that their native culture was so wrecked that the records obtained from the survivors are the poorest in all inhabited Polynesia. Unfortunately the early missionaries to Easter Island hadn't sufficient vision or interest to teach the native scholars to write down their history, legends, and customs.

The early European voyagers collected curios and wrote down what they saw and often what they did not see. Behrens, who accompanied Roggeveen, stated that the natives were so tall that the seamen could walk upright between their legs. He also saw pottery in a land where there was no clay. Paymaster Thomson of the U.S.S. Mohican, wrote of the material things he saw in 886, but even then it was too late to gather authentic information about ancient manners and customs. Mrs. Routledge made a survey in 1914 and her information about images, quarries, and platforms is valuable. Macmillan Brown visited later and his theory of a sunken archipelago has interested many. The Franco-Belgian Expedition visited the island in 1934 and later Dr. Alfred M~traux, a member of the expedition, worked up his field material at Bishop Museum. He and I had many discussions, and much of the information contained in this chapter was obtained from his manuscript which will be published by Bishop Museum.


Religion and Mythlogy

From the fragments we can reconstruct but little of the native mythology. Atea and Papa, the primary parents) have not been recorded. Tangaroa came to Easter Island in the form of a seal with a human face and voice. The seal was killed but, though baked for the necessary time in an earth oven, the seal refused to cook. Hence the people inferred that Tangaroa must have been a chief of power. Tangaroa also appears in the king's lineage with Rongo as his son. This scanty information is significant as an echo from central Polynesia.

Tane and Tu are absent from the pantheon but Tu-koihu is an early ancestor. He was a skilled artisan, which reminds us of the early functions of the god Tu in the Tahitian tale of creation. Hiro, the famous voyager of central Polynesia, occurs in an invocation for rain. The first line runs:

E te ua, matavai roa a Hiro e-
(0 rain, long tear drops of Hiro-)

Ruanuku, a well-known god, occurs in a genealogy. Atua-metua is present in a creation chant. This name is intriguing for it resembles Atu-motua, one of the early gods of Mangareva. Though Atu (lord) and Atua (god) are different words, a change may have taken place in Easter Island. The qualifying words motua and metua are linguistic forms of the same word meaning father.

Atua-metua mated with Riri-tuna-rei and produced the nin. The word niu is the widely spread name for coconut but, as there were no coconuts on Easter Island, the name was applied locally to the fruit of the miro. The word tuna in the compound name of Riri-tuna-rei means eel, and it is evident that this fragment records a memory of the well-known myth of the origin of the coconut from the head of an eel.

The principal god was Makemake. The name does not occur elsewhere as the name of a powerful god, and Metraux thinks that it is a local name substitution for the important Polynesian god Tane. This theory is supported by the myth that Makemake created man on Easter Island in a way similar to that used by Tane and Tiki to form the first woman in other parts of Polynesia. Makemake procreated red flesh from a calabash of water. He mounded up some earth and from it he formed three males and one female. The process of mounding up earth is described in the local dialect as popo i te one, in which one is the general term for earth and popo is the local verb for heaping up, which in other dialects is aha.

The Easter Island creation chant, first recorded by Thomson in 1886 and checked over by Metraux with native informants, follows the pattern of such chants in other parts of Polynesia. Various couples are mated to produce plants, insects, birds, fish, and other objects. As in the Marquesas, Mangareva, and the Tuamotu, Tiki, here called Tiki-te-hatu (Tiki-the-lord), is mated with different wives to produce numerous offspring. Among Tiki's wives was Rurua who gave birth to Ririkatea, a king and father of Hotu-matua, the first king of Easter Island. By another wife named Hina-popia (Hina-the-heaped-up), Tiki produced a daughter, Hina-kauhara. In Hina-popoia we find a possible memory of the first woman, known elsewhere as Hina-ahu-one (Earth-formed-maid). Thus, from the wreck of local mythology, there remain a few definite indications that the mythology of Easter Island contained fundamental elements that originated in central Polynesia.

Makemake was responsible for the fertility of food plants, fowls, and the paper mulberry from which cloth was produced. When crops were planted, a skull representing Makemake was placed in the ground and an incantation was offered, commencing, 'Ka to ma Haua, ma Makemake' (Plant for Haua, for Makemake). Makemake was worshipped in the form of sea-birds, which may be interpreted as his incarnation. His material symbol, a man with a bird's head, was carved on the rocks at the Orongo village. Wooden images representing him were carried at the feasts. Human sacrifices were made in his honour and the material part was consumed by the priests. These various items conform to a general Polynesian pattern, but the bird-headed man is an expression of art influenced by local developments.

Of the organized forms of religious ritual we know little. Priests presided over birth festivals, drove out disease demons, and regulated funeral ceremonies for which they composed dirges. The priests were termed ivi-atua (people of the god), which has an affinity with the Mangarevan term for priestly chants. Human sacrifices were termed ika (fish), a widespread Polynesian term which probably had its origin in an early period when religious offerings consisted principally of fish. Sorcerers and priestesses who claimed to be the medium of deceased relatives who had something to communicate functioned much as in the religious systems of other Polynesian islands.

The spirits of the dead were called akuaku and were represented by the carved wooden images termed moai kavakava with protruding ribs and sunken abdomens. The spirits were stated to have introduced tattooing, turmeric dyes, and a variety of yam, which they must have brought from the land of the dead away to the westward. The Easter Islanders shared in the general Polynesian concept of a spirit land, not as a place of reward or punishment but simply as a land beyond the grave to which the undying souls of all men may return.


Traditional History

The traditional history is almost as poorly transmitted as the mythology. Hotu-matua took up his residence at Anakena and shortly after the landing his wife Vaikai-a-hiva gave birth to a male child. Tu-koihu cut the navel cord of the child and conducted the ritual whereby the royal halo (ata ariki) was produced around the child's head to indicate its royal birth. He was named Tu-maheke and through him descends the line of Easter Island kings. On the basis of fragments of royal genealogies, Metraux has estimated that Hotu-matua landed on the island in about I 150 A.D.

As in other parts of Polynesia, tribes developed with increase in population, taking the names of ancestors and living in definite districts of the island. The highest ranking chief, who also had priestly functions, belonged to the senior line descended from Hotu-matua. This tribe was named Miru and ranked above the other tribes, enjoying certain special privileges.

Inter-tribal wars were frequent and the tale of the war between Long-ears and Short-ears may indicate that there were two early groups of settlers; one group, which pierced their ears and wore such heavy ornaments that their ears were considerably elongated, coming from the Marquesas where heavy ear ornaments were worn, and the other group which did not pierce their ears coming from Mangareva. The Long-ears lived on the eastern end of the island and were credited with making the stone images which have long ears and the stone temple structures. The Short-ears lived on the western part of the island and had the more fertile lands. The Marquesans carved large stone images and built stone retaining walls, whereas the Mangarevans did not. Conflict arose because the Short-ears refused to carry stones to assist the Long-ears in erecting a temple. In the war which followed, the Long-ears were said to be almost exterminated. This may account for what appears to have been a sudden cessation of work in the image quarry and the commencement of knocking down the images from their platforms.


Birds and Bird Cult

Click here for petroglyph of the Bird-Man.

The fowl, which was the only domestic animal known in Easter Island, may have come from the Marquesas where it was present but not from Mangareva where it was absent. Because it was the only domestic animal, the fowl received more attention and honour than in any other part of Polynesia. Fowls became the mark of wealth, and festivals were characterized by gifts and distributions of fowls. In order to protect them from thieves, fowl houses of piled stones were erected to house them at night. Stones were piled up against the entrance and the sound of stones being moved served as an alarm to the owner. Skulls with incised carvings, imbued with power by Makemake, were placed in the fowl house to promote the egg-laying capacity of the occupants.

It may seem a long call from the domestic fowl to the sooty tern, but both are birds and lay eggs. The sooty tern (manu tara) comes to breed in large numbers in July or August off the southwestern point formed by the crater of Rano-kao on three rocky islets, of which the only one accessible to swimmers is Motu-nui. What commenced as an ordinary food quest for eggs became an annual competition to obtain the first egg of the season. The warriors (matatoa) of the dominant tribe entered servants for the annual Derby, and members of defeated tribes were not allowed to take part in the competition. The selected servants swam over to Motu-nui and waited in caves for the migration of the birds. The warriors and their families assembled on the lip of Rano-kao that overlooked the course. Owing to the strong wind, they built houses of stone for shelter at the village named Orongo, the Place-of-listening. There they listened for the coming of the birds and waited for the call of the successful servant who found the first egg. While waiting they amused themselves with singing and feasting and carved on the adjacent rock figures with birds' heads and human bodies, the symbol of Makemake, god of fowls and sea-birds. In time, rules and ritual were developed about this annual competition which became the most important social event on the island. The successful servant leaped onto a rocky promontory and shouted across the water to his master, 'Shave your head. The egg is yours.'

A sentry on watch in a cave below Orongo, termed the Bird-listener (Hakaronga-manu), heard the call and relayed the message up to the waiting masters. The successful master was termed the Bird-man (Tangata-manu). On reception of the egg, the people escorted him to Mataveri, where a feast was held in his honour. After that he went into seclusion for a year in a house at Rano-raraku. The details of his functions and privileges are not known, but certain it is that he was held in high honour and provided with food by the people until the next annual Derby took place. The list of Bird-men was memorized and transmitted like a line of kings. The bird cult is not known elsewhere in Polynesia and is clearly a local development arising out of peculiar local conditions. The importance of the fowl as the sole domesticated animal, the annual migration of the sooty tern to a near-by islet to breed, the village of Orongo with its carved rocks overlooking the course, and the development of the bird cult are all in a natural sequence that could have occurred nowhere else but on Easter Island.