Our guide led us on a tour of the remains and history of the Birdman cult. This unique religion emerged on Rapa Nui in about the 1600s and lasted into the 1800s.
In this religion, warriors and priests retreated annually to the edge of a crater. Warriors competed in an annual competition to retrieve an unbroken bird egg of the Sooty Tern from an island off the coast of Rapa Nui. The warriors climbed down a cliff, swam through the ocean, and camped on an island to wait for the bird to lay an egg. Competitors might attack or sabatoge one another in the process, and death was not uncommon. They swam the egg back to Rapa Nui by carrying it in a pouch on their foreheads. The winner ruled the clan for the coming year.
It’s hypothesized this religion emerged due to some hardship on the island. The religion coincided with reverence to the Moai, and it filled some void not provided by ancestral worship alone.
The Birdman religion seemed to peter out as European explorers and Catholicism arrived on Rapa Nui in the 1800s. It’s a remarkable period in the island’s and people’s history.