The Culture of Easter Island

Although the small triangular island is only about 24.6 km (15.3 mi) long by 12.3 km (7.6 mi) at its widest point, Easter Island (known as Rapa Nui to its earliest inhabitants) is one of the most fascinating places on earth. The island boasts a very dramatic history that historians and researchers are still trying to piece together today. Located approximately 2,300 miles from Chile’s west coast and 2,500 miles east of Tahiti, it is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. This isolation created a very rich and unique culture, yet still shrouded in mystery. Let’s look at some the talking points that have made Easter Island such a captivating island.


The Long-ears and the Short-ears

Oral traditions of the islanders state that the island was settled twice, the first time by a race known as the “Long-ears” who came from the east, and the second time by the “Short-ears” from the west. It seems the two clans were really the Hanau eepe (“short and stocky”) and theHanau momoko (“tall and slim”); the strange mix-up came from mistranslating eepe – short and stocky – as “ear” (“epe” in Rapa Nui).

The Long-ears who saw themselves as more aristocratic, were extremely domineering, and the “Short Ears” resented them intensely.  The Short-ears were merely laborers, while the Long-ears were the master builders of the larger stone statues which were manufactured in Rano Raraku quarry and found scattered all over the island. For two centuries, the Short-ears willingly toiled to erect monuments that represented the long-eared chiefs of the original population.

After co-existing for approximately 200 years, a civil war erupted when the Short-ears revolted after they were forced to clear the entire Poike peninsula of stones. Therefore, the Long-ears had dug an extensive trench and laid a pyre in it, then withdrew behind these fortifications to the eastern hillsides of Poike. However they were outwitted by the Short-ears who faked a head-on night attack. When the Long-ears, believing the attack was real, lit their pyre, another unit of Short-ears secretly came in around the trench, fell upon the Long-ears and pushed them into what became their own death trap.

The Birdman Cult

Another famous tradition on Easter Island is that of the Birdman, half man and half bird, that was connected to cult events at the sacred site of Orongo. A couple of days ago I posted a legend on how the Birdman tradition originated.

Like most of Polynesia at the time, a paramount chief held the original power. Over time, the chief’s omnipotence declined (possibly as a result of ecological stresses), and the secular power on the island was seized by a warrior class, called ‘matatoa’, whose emblem was the Birdman. The result was a decline in the old religion of ancestor worship and an increase in acts of warfare. At this time, statue making appears to have ceased, and the birdman cult came into being.

The most sacred area at Orongo is called Mata Ngarau, where priests chanted and prayed for success in the annual egg hunt.

Each year, contestants were selected as competitors for the title of Birdman. Each contestant would then sponsor a representative of their choosing who would be challenged to scale the dangerous face of the Rano Kau cliff, then swim shark-infested waters to the small island of Motu Nui. There, the task was simple: find eggs laid by the elusive Sooty Tern.

The first to find an egg for their sponsor was declared the winner. In turn, the sponsor (but not the one who did all of the work) would be crowned as the Birdman, or Tangata-Manu. The title allegedly earned the victor and his clan all of the benefits of a god during the year that he held the lofty title.


Photo from

The Moai

No talk about Easter Island would be complete without mentioning the moai. The moais are large stone carved figures, or monoliths, that dot the coastline of the island and were built approximately 1400 to 1650 A.D. Many know them as the Easter Island heads. This is a misconception from having seen photos of statues in the volcano Rano Raraku partially covered up with soil. Truth is that all of these “heads” have full bodies.

Moai statues were built to honor chieftain or other important people who had passed away. They were placed on rectangular stone platforms called ahu, which are tombs for the people that the statues represented. The moais were intentionally made with different characteristics since they were intended to keep the appearance of the person it represented.

The moai are seen all over the island, and in different shapes, sizes, and stages of completion. They were carved by Short-ears, but after their rebellion against the Long-ears, the statue-carving came to an abrupt end.

By the end of the 19th century, not a single statue was left standing. The most common theory to this is that the statues were overthrown in tribal warfare to humiliate the enemy. An argument for this is the fact that most statues have fallen forward with the face into the earth. Today, many of the statues have been rebuilt and erected to their normal position.

And that concludes our Easter Island week. The Internet is full of information about the island. When you get some free time, simply type “Easter Island” into your web browser, and away you go!


About islandculturearchivalsupport

Island Culture Archival Support (ICAS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of records pertaining to the cultural identity of island peoples in Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia whose national and public archives, libraries, cultural centers, and business organizations are underprivileged, underfunded, and understaffed. The specific purpose for which this nonprofit corporation was formed is to support the needs of these South Pacific cultural heritage institutions by helping to preserve and make accessible records created for business, accountability or cultural purposes. The organization will endeavor to add value by providing resources or volunteers to advise, train, and work among island residents to support their efforts in building their future and preserving their collective memory through the use of modern archival techniques.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s