Orongo – The Birdman-Cult Centre on a Volcano

Orongo is a stone settlement and seasonal ceremonial centre, built by the indigenous Rapa Nui people on the edge of the Rano Kau Volcano caldera, located on the southwestern tip of Easter Island.

With the overpopulation and limited resources on the island, the traditional maoi culture was in decline, resulting in the emergence of the Bird Man Cult around AD 1540.

- Advertisement -

The cult deified Make-make (the creator of humanity and the god of fertility) as their chief god, along with Hawa-tuu-take-take (the chief of the eggs), his wife Vie Hoa, Vie Kenatea, and their four servant gods.

Orongo was founded in the sacred precinct of Mata Ngarau during the Huri-Moai period between AD 1680-1867, with the construction of over 50 dry-laid stone masonry houses laid out in a plan of overlapping clusters.  Evidence of prior activity on the summit has been identified by various pictographs and rock carvings, consisting of images depicting 375 tangata manu (Birdmen), 195 komari, and 140 faces.

Orongo – Image Credit : Alfredo Cerra – Shutterstock

The settlement served as the finale of the Tangata Manu annual games, a traditional competition to facilitate the transfer of power between competing clans. During the Tangata Manu, the rock carvings were painted to evoke the mana of the previous sacred Birdmen, and clans would perform sacred rituals whilst chanting the names of all eight gods.

Competitors were revealed in dreams by ivi-attuas or prophets, who in turn would then appoint a hopu (man of lesser status) and task them with collecting the first sooty tern (manu tara) egg of the season from the islet of Motu Nui. The hopu would then swim back to Rapa Nui, and climb the sea cliff of Rano Kau to Orongo, where they would present the egg to their patron.

- Advertisement -
View of Rano Kau volcanic caldera from Orongo – Image Credit : Angela Meier – Shutterstock

The winner was the first patron to receive the egg,  who was declared tangata-manu, receiving the sole rights for their clan to collect that season’s harvest of wild bird eggs and fledglings from Motu Nui. The tangata-manu would then go into seclusion in a ceremonial house, wearing a headdress made from human hair and grow his nails.

By the mid to late 19th century, many of the islanders had died of disease introduced by European explorers, or were enslaved by Peruvian slavers. With the arrival of Christian missionaries to the island, the Tangata Manu was suppressed, and Orongo was left abandoned.

Header Image Credit : FCG – Shutterstock

- Advertisement -
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 8,000 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

Mobile Application


Related Articles

LiDAR identifies lost settlements in the forests of Campeche

Archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have identified ancient settlements in the forests of Campeche using LiDAR.

Greco-Roman era tombs found west of Aswan

Archaeologists have discovered 33 tombs dating from the Greco-Roman period during excavations in the area of the Aga Khan mausoleum, west of Aswan, Egypt.

Golden primrose among new discoveries at Auckland Castle

Archaeologists from the Auckland Project are conducting excavations at Auckland Castle to unearth the home of Sir Arthur Haselrig, a leader of the Parliamentary opposition to Charles I.

Archaeologists search for lost world beneath the Gulf of Mexico

A multinational team, including researchers from the University of Bradford, is conducting a study in the Gulf of Mexico to identify submerged landscapes from the last Ice Age.

Archaeologists discover giant monumental structure

Archaeologists from the University of Hradec Králové have discovered a giant mound structure during preliminary archaeological investigations along the route of the D35 Plotiště-Sadová highway in Czechia.

Viking ship discovered at Jarlsberg Hovedgård

Archaeologists have discovered a Viking ship burial northwest of Tønsberg in Vestfold county, Norway.

Update : Ming Dynasty shipwrecks

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage has released an update on the current recovery efforts of two Ming Dynasty shipwrecks in the South China Sea.

Study reveals new insights into life at “German Stonehenge”

Excavations of the Ringheiligtum Pömmelte, nicknamed the “German Stonehenge”, has revealed new insights into domestic life from prehistory.