El Hombre Pajaro
El Hombre Pajaro


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.

The birds of Rapa Nui

Jared Diamond refers to Steadman’s work on Rapa Nui where he found the early Polynesian settlers had feasted on seabirds. For those birds, Rapa Niu’s remoteness and lack of predators made it an ideal haven as a breeding site, at least until humans arrived. The prodigious numbers of seabirds that bred on Rapa Nui included albatross, boobies, frigate birds, fulmars, petrels, prions, shearwaters, storm petrels, terns, and tropic birds. With at least 25 nesting species, Rapa Nui was the richest seabird breeding site in Polynesia and probably in the whole Pacific.

Land birds as well went into early Rapa Nui cooking pots. Steadman has identified bones of at least six species, including barn owls, herons, parrots, and rail. Bird stew would have been seasoned with meat from large numbers of rats, which the Polynesian colonists inadvertently brought with them; Easter Island is the sole known Polynesian island where rat bones outnumber fish bones at archeological sites.

Birdlife International (2008)
Number of species: 23
(16 seabirds, 2 shorebirds)
All landbirds introduced
Number of globally threatened species: 2
Number of introduced species: 5

Smithsonian Institution (1967)
11 species of seabirds

Johnson et al (1969)
11 species of seabirds

It was originally believed that the Tangata-Manu Cult was centred on the Frigate Bird Fregata minor but that over time – perhaps because the Sooty Tern – the Manutara, was much more common and economically important – the species at the centre of the cult changed to the Manutara.

Manutara is a bird of the tropical oceans, breeding on islands throughout the equatorial zone. Colloquially, it is known as the Wideawake Tern or just Wideawake. This refers to the incessant calls produced by a colony of these birds, as does the Hawaiian name “ʻewa ʻewa” which roughly means “cacophony”. In most of Polynesia its name is Manutara or similar – literally “tern-bird”…wherever Polynesian seafarers went on their long voyages, they would find these birds, and usually in astounding numbers.The call is a loud piercing ker-wack-a-wack or kvaark.

The speculation about the centrality of the Frigate Bird to the early Tangata-Manu Cult is still unresolved – for example there are a total of 481 Tangata-Manu petroglyphs on Rapa Nui, fifteen of which are identifiable as the Frigate Bird, twenty-four identifiable as the Sooty tern and there are seventy-nine generic bird petroglyphs

The Great Frigatebird is a large seabird, measuring 85-105 cm (33.5-41.5 in) with long pointed wings of 205-230 cm (80.5-90.5 in) and long forked tails. Frigatebirds are light, weighing between 1-1.8 kg (2.2-4 lb), and have the highest ratio of wing area to body mass, and the lowest wing loading of any bird. This has been hypothesized to enable the birds to utilize marine thermals created by small differences between tropical air and water temperatures.

Makemake and the Tangata Manu cult

The Rapanui creator figure was Makemake, whose earthly representative was not a hereditary king but an annually selected Tangata-Manu – birdman. The Tangata-Manu cult was based at the ceremonial village of Orongo – on the 400m-high rim of the Rano Kau volcanic crater. The Tangata-Manu was selected by competition between a number, usually 4, young men, known as the Hopu manu, selected from the worker caste on behalf of their patrons.

At some time in July participants went from the Mataveri area up the crater of Rano Kau – each of the chosen acted in the name of one of four gods associated with the cult – the gods were Makemake, Haua (Makemake’s companion) and their wives Vie Kenatea and Vie Hoa respectively.

The Hopu Manu then had to descend the steep cliffs, swim across a shark infested channel, with the aid of Pora, small reed floats, to the small off-shore island of Motu Nui on which the Manutara nest in large numbers and survive the difficult landing on Motu Nui.

Once on Motu Nui the men remained sheltered in caves (sometimes for weeks or months) and waited be the first to find and return to his patron with the first Manutara (Sooty Tern) egg of the season. During this time the Ivi Atua (high status priests) gathered at Orongo to predict which of the men would be successful. The successful individual would shout the news to those at Orongo and the winner would be announced to the gathered multitude.

The final task would be for the unsuccessful contestants to return to Orongo, the winner allowed to remain in Motu Nui until he felt spiritually prepared to return. On his return he would present the egg to his patron, who had already shaved his head and painted it either white or red
The successful man would be declared Tangata-Manu, would take the egg in his hand and lead a procession back to his homeland. Once in residence there he was tapu (taboo) for the next five months of his year long status, and allowed his nails to grow and wore a headdress of human hair.
The new Tangata-Manu was given a new name, entitled to gifts of food other tributes and went into seclusion for 1 year in a special ceremonial house

Katherine Routledge, Jo Ann van Tilburg and Rapa Nui

Most of the little we now know of the Tangata-Manu cult is due to the work of Mrs Scoresby (Katherine) Routledge and her biographer and Rapa Nui researcher Jo Ann Van Tilburg.

Van Tilburg says that the Tangata-Manu cult, while unique to Rapa Nui, retains some distinct Polynesian references and contains similar natural and mythological elements to Pukapukan beliefs from the Samoic language spoken on the Cook Islands far to the east.

Van Tilburg believes that the goals of the Tangata-Manu cult of Rapa Nui were both secular and spiritual. The spiritual related to fertility & fecundity. The secular varied over time, originally it operated to concentrate power in the Miru traditional elite, later to legitimise the spread of power through competition.

Van Tilburg considers that the ecological basis of the Tangata-Manu cult and the changing relationships over time between the Rapa Nui and the Makohe, the Frigate Bird and the Manutara, the Sooty Tern and the Kahi Aveave, the Yellowfin Tuna (Thunnus albacares) and the effect of population pressures, forced changes in hunting techniques and resource availability.

As Van Tilburg says :

“The impact of the Rapa Nui on the bird population through habitat destruction and predation was enormous, and in too many cases, fatal…One of the incomparably sad notes echoing from the carved rocks of Orongo is the fact that the Rapa Nui knew full well that the arrival of the birds meant the arrival of the fish (Yellowfin Tuna). The cult activity they created allowed them access to the birds and birds’ eggs, but the highly desirable, large pelagic fish were unavailable to them without adequate vessels. From the mid-to late AD 1600s on, those vessels were nonexistent without palm wood. It must have been incredibly frustrating, both physically and spiritually, to gather seasonally on the cliffs of Orongo, far above the sea, knowing that the churning depths below were probably filled with the elusive, thrashing bodies of delectable and life-sustaining tuna.”

Katherine Routledge and her husband Scoresby Routledge sailed their purpose-built schooner the Mana from England and stayed on Rapa Nui from March 1914 to August 1915. She published a number of reports in Folklore, The National Geographic and also her popular self-published account The Mysteries of Easter Island. Routledge’s work is valuable both for the quality of her research and that she was the first ethnographer to interview the surviving participants in the last Tangata-Manu ceremonies held in the late 1800s.

Her work has informed much later research – though few other than Van Tilburg have accessed her voluminous records held in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society in London those records show that she “salvaged extremely important, fragmented memories of island traditions that otherwise would have been lost.”

Katherine Routledge’s later years were marked by increasing bouts of mental illness, now suspected to have been a paranoid schizophrenic condition. She died aged 55 years in 1935, never having written her ‘more scientific’ account of her expedition to Rapa Nui.