Moai and Mana: Dispatch 6 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

March 23rd, 2009 by Richard Kurin

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is sixth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Moai with concrete eyes. Photo: Richard Kurin

Moai with concrete eyes. Photo: Richard Kurin

Dateline: Easter Island

Easter Island’s moai were enspirited with mana, or power, that would flow to members of the ancestral tribe once eyes were added to the statues. A few years ago, the Rapa Nui council of elders decided to add eyes, not of coral, but of cement, to one of the statues so that people could view and take photographs of a completed moai. The image is striking and indeed awesome.

Patricia, so knowledgeable, anticipates our question. How come all the moai don’t have eyes? She tells us that since the eyes completed the representation, they were regarded as especially powerful. None have been found for the hundreds of statues found on the island. Hundreds of sets of eyes may have been buried—hidden away tfor protection at the time of island upheaval. Alternatively they could have been thrown into the sea—either to save them or destroy them.

The group hikes up to Orongo at the Rano Kau volcano, the edge of Easter Island, but the center of the birdman cult. You really feel like you are at the edge of the world, given the wide panorama of the ocean.

The spiritual belief of the birdman cult grew as the making of statues and the economy declined. Mana was still important, thought to come not from the moai, but from a designated “birdman.” Warriors from different tribes would compete in an annual contest. The goal was to swim out to a small islet where birds annually nested, collect the first egg, and then swim back across the channel, climb the cliff, and bring the egg back fully intact. Seeing the rough, rocky channel, one can appreciate the danger involved and the skill needed for the task. The winner was designated the “birdman;” his tribe would then be the ruling tribe for the year, and his chief the paramount chief of the island. The birdman himself would have to live in isolation for the year—as his power was too strong for his fellow humans.

Anthropologist Patricia Vargas shows Smithsonian Travelers the site of the birdman competition. Photo: Richard Kurin

Anthropologist Patricia Vargas shows Smithsonian Travelers the site of the birdman competition. Photo: Richard Kurin

This competition replaced warfare, and athletic prowess trumped chiefly and priestly privilege. It started in about the 17th or 18th century and lasted until missionary times—documented by many, including an 1886 Smithsonian expedition.

A visit to Ahu Vinapu is our last view of archaeological remains on the island. Though in disarray, the mount for the moai is constructed in a manner suggestive of Inca style—large, tight fitting boulders. Heyerdahl used this ruin to help make his case for ancient Peruvian settlement of Easter Island. He also claimed that the moai were similar to ancient pre-Incan Tiwanaku statues, that the birdman iconography was similar to that in Peru, and that the sweet potato—known across Polynesia as a particular reed growing in the volcano crater—all originated in South America.

The walls of Vinapu are not like the Incan structures, but rather form a façade—almost like a surface-level imitation. Patricia however doesn’t see the iconography or statues as similar. She says birds and winds carried the crater reed seeds within the last century, and that the construction style and sweet potato more likely originated from Polynesians sailing to South America and bringing back food and ideas in the 1400s rather than the original settlement of the island by ancient Peruvians.

We quickly decamp to the airport, board our plane and get on our way to the Kingdom of Tonga where Adrienne promises to teach the group Polynesian dancing techniques at breakfast tomorrow—or rather the day after, since we cross the international dateline and lose a day!

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