The modern church building is filled to the last seat. Congregation members who could not get a place inside are spilling out over the steps straining to get a glimpse of the priest and the Easter mass in Hanga Roa on Rapa Nui (=Easter Island). Children are merrily playing and chatting, not particularly interested in the resurrection celebrations going on inside.
Island fruits in the Easter basket
Gradually we push our way into the church building. A group of guitar and accordion players in colourful Hawaii shirts and with Tipane-flowers in their hair play Polynesian songs. “…Maria Rapa Nui, Mariiia Rapa Nui!,” the church echoes. After mass, the papayas and pineapples in the Easter basket are distributed among the congregation. We get a delicious papaya and a mango for our next breakfast, as well as an unripe avocado that even one week in our overheated tent cannot mellow.
A look around the carved wooden statues reveals an Archangel Michael wearing a necklace of fresh hibiscus flowers. Still, we wonder who is the unusual saint next to him with a bird’s beak and wings, arrows sticking out of his body?
Tourists staring at Moai
From the shore right outside Hanga Roa, the main village, Ko Te Riku is staring inland, towards the volcanoes. Today he is the only Moai with (restored) eyes, but like nearly all the huge stone statues on Easter Island he was erected with his back to the sea. The Moai are statues of important ancestors, and they were meant to watch their tribes, protecting them. In groups of 5, 7, or even 15 they stood on huge stone platforms, which the islanders built between about the 9th and 14th century.
“The largest statue ever made is 20 meters. Please move on when you have taken a picture.” Groups of Japanese tourists on a Peaceboat cruise are filing through the old quarry on the slopes of volcano Rano Raraku. All of the the more than 700 colossal stone heads found on the island were sculpted here. But about half of them never left the quarry. Some were left unfinished, others stand upright and ready for transport in the low grass. “Could you take a picture of me in front of these two heads?,” a Japanese retiree crusader asks. It is his first trip on a cruise ship and he is enjoying it so much that he is already thinking of doing Europe and the Canadian coast next year.
Exploring Easter Island on bicycles
On our way back to Hanga Roa, we stop at several minor ceremonial platforms. Indeed we are thankful for every break from the rickety rented bicycles. Tetanga is lying face down in a pasture, an enormous head apparently abandoned when it was too hard to move. A horse is rubbing his itching side at the giant’s earlobe.
By the 14th century the islanders had used up all the resources on Rapa Nui. This resulted in famines, tribal warfare over scarce food and wood supplies, and consequently a radical reduction of the population. The ancestral statues had apparently failed to protect the tribe. And thus the Moai were overthrown, smashed, and their eyes broken out by the inhabitants. Long before the first Europeans set foot on the island on Easter Sunday 1722, the old ancestral worship had been replaced by the new birdman cult.
The Birdman cult of Rapa Nui
The next day we walk up to the low but more than 100m wide crater of Rano Kau volcano. Wild guavas grow on its rim, and the crater lake is covered by swimming plants. None of the original plants of the island have survived, a sign informs us. The same people who had carved those impressive stone statues had also managed to destroy their environment quite thoroughly.
Carved images of a bent-over person with a bird’s beak dot the cliffs around Orongo, a ceremonial village on the rim of the volcano. Orongo was only inhabited for a few weeks each year. During that time, selected athletes competed for each clan in finding the first egg of the sooty tern, a migratory bird nesting on an uninhabited off-shore islet. The clan’s nobility passed the time dancing and carving petroglyphs until the winning athlete was determined. This swimmer’s master then was announced as the birdman of the year, a kind of spiritual leader. But with the advent of missionaries and a few decades of slave trade, in which most of Rapa Nui’s elite was sold to Peru, the birdman cult as well as most of the knowledge of the old traditions died out.
The next Sunday, we are back in Rapa Nui’s Catholic Church. There are no Easter eggs. But the carved figure with the beak, we realise, is a revival of at least one of the broken traditions of the island, the birdman cult.