In 2013, new digital imaging technology allowed scientists from the University of Southampton to more closely study the Hoa Hakananai'a statue in London’s British Museum. Taken to England in 1868, the 4.5-ton stone statue’s block face and furrowed brow exemplify the even more massive moai scattered around Easter Island, or Rapa Nui. What distinguishes Hoa Hakananai’a, however, are carvings on its backside that depict the island’s mysterious birdman cult.
Worship of the mythological half-man, half-bird figure appeared on Rapa Nui sometime during the 1500s, replacing the ancestral worship typical throughout Polynesia and emblemized by its giant stone guardians. Believers toppled many of the ancient statues and destroyed smaller ones. While there are more than 1,800 petroglyphs and stone houses in the ceremonial village of Orongo, where the Birdman cult was centered, Hoa Hakananai’a was the only moai to survive—and only after the winged symbolism was added.
So what caused this seismic shift in sacred beliefs? The general consensus is that the avian adulation grew from environmental stresses. Located nearly 3,000 miles off Chile’s coast, Easter Island is one of the most remote places on the planet. When Polynesians first arrived there, it was as verdant as the Hawaiian archipelago; but after hundreds of years of deforestation, the island was barren by the time the first Europeans arrived in 1722. With their gods and earthly rulers seemingly failing them, inhabitants abruptly abandoned moai carving and turned to their warrior class or matatoa for guidance. (Zegrahm guests will visit Rano Raraku, the island’s massive tuff quarry, where nearly 400 half-formed statues are strewn about.)
Between warring clans and diminished resources, Rapa Nui’s population plummeted. One of the last remaining sources of sustenance were seabirds and their eggs, and the creatures’ ability to fly and fish earned the islanders’ reverence. A religion arose, and numerous festivities were held in Orongo, which dramatically sits on a narrow ridge along the island’s southern tip. The most noted event was a competition that pitted young champions from each clan, who plunged off Orongo’s 1,000-foot cliffs and swam through shark-infested Pacific waters to Motu Nui, a small island about a mile away. After returning with the egg of a sooty tern, the winner was crowned “Tangata Manu” (“Bird-Man”) and made leader for the year.
The birdman cult was practiced until the first missionaries arrived in the 1860s and converted the remaining residents to Christianity. As for Hoa Hakananai’a, it remains a sort of Rosetta stone, bridging Easter Island’s transition from ancestor to avian worship. Modern technology revealed a number of features not seen before, including both male and female imagery and scenes of a birdman chick leaving its nest.