El Ritual del Hombre-Pajaro – the bird-man cult of Rapa Nui
This is an extract from my recent presentation at the most recent Society of Ethnobiology conference held at Tulane University in New Orleans in early April 2009.
A year earlier, at the Society’s conference at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, I spent some time in the David W. Mullins Library and found something new and totally unexpected – in the pages of the Folklore journal of 1917 I found Mrs Katherine Scoresby Routledge’s article ‘The Bird Cult of Easter Island‘.
The Tangata Manu bird man cult and recent history of Rapa Nui
The Tangata Manu bird-man cult of Orongo, Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) ended in the late 1880s following the slow decline of the post-contact Easter Island people, the Rapanui, and their culture.
Van Tilburg (2003) – suggests that the Rapanui may have once numbered upwards of 10,000 with a worker caste doing the hard work of food production & resource exploitation and chiefs and priests controlled access to sacred places and use of high-value resources. It is believed that the Rapanui’s arrival dates from perhaps as early as AD 100-300 but certainly from AD 600-800
Rapa Nui is a triangular island a long way from just about anywhere – 3,600 km south-east to Concepcion, Chile, 3,500 km north-east to the Galapagos Islands and 3,400 km east to Rapa Island in French Polynesia. With an area of only 64 square miles, is the world’s most isolated scrap of habitable land and was declared a national park by Chile in 1935, and a world heritage site in 1995
The first European contact with the Rapanui was the Dutch expedition in 1722 led by Admiral Jacob Roggeveen, who left a very bad first impression by killing a dozen Islanders before soon leaving in a hurry. In 1770 a Spanish party from Peru claimed the island for Spain, closely followed by the arrival of the British navigator James Cook who found a decimated, poverty stricken population. The Frenchman La Perouse visited in 1786.
From the early 1800s whalers arrived and left venereal disease and were followed soon after by an American ship captain in 1805 who led the first of a series of slaving raids. A devastating slave raid by Peruvian slavers in 1862 reduced the population to just one hundred and eleven.
The Peruvians carried off about 5,000 people in 15 vessels to work as agricultural laborers in Peru on the guano deposits of the Chincha Islands. Some time afterwards the Peruvian Government was induced to return those who had not succumbed to their treatment and altered conditions of life. Smallpox broke out among these on the return voyage.
In 1864 a Jesuit mission was established on the island, at which time the population numbered about 1,500.
When H. M. S. Topaze visited the island in 1868 there were about 900 Rapa Nui left.
In 1870 the Frenchman Dutroux-Bornier transformed RN into a sheep farm, which led to, in about the year 1875, some 500 were removed to Tahiti under contract to work on the sugar plantations of that island. Dutroux-Bornier was killed by Islanders in 1877. In 1878 the Jesuit missionaries departed from the island, taking with them about 300 of the people, who settled Gambier Archipelago.
When H. M. S. Sappho touched at the island in 1882 it was reported that but 150 of the inhabitants were left. [Cooke reports just over 300 in 1899]
In 1888 the Island was annexed by Chile. This time marked the end of the Tangata-Manu ritual.
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