When Europeans arrived at Easter Island the moai were there to greet them. Nearly nine hundred of the multi-ton statues stood facing inward towards the island. The moai were carved from the living rock of the island and transported to their various locations, a feat on the scale of moving the Stonehenge blocks. It is thought that these represented the physical embodiment of ancestor spirits, a combination altar, icon, and occasional home.
But if these were religious icons, something terrible happened to their belief system. Instead of moai worship the Europeans were greeted by the ominously named Birdman Cult, Tangata Matu. At some point in their recent past the moai quarries were abruptly abandoned, unfinished moai left permanently half-formed out of the rock. Concurrently some unknown disaster had caused their island population to crash from nearly 15,000 down to only 3,000.
Although no record exists to prove it, what likely happened to these people was environmental degredation on a major scale. Easter Island today is a land of high cliffs, bare rocks, and thin soil, but when Polynesian settlers first arrived fifteen-hundred years ago, the island would have resembled Hawaii, a verdantly forested island. Over the next thousand years the inhabitants exhausted the forests, chopping down trees for fuel, building, and transport for the immense moai. The people thrived, led by the ariki, high chief and leader of the old moai religion.
But when the forests vanished, so did the fertility of the island. Suddenly deprived of food and building materials, the population crashed. A warrior uprising took place, overthrowing the ariki and replacing his ancestral religion with a new one born out of the warrior’s half-animal patron, makemake, and the only remaining source of food, migratory sea birds.
This leads to the central ritual of the cult. Every year, as the migratory birds, in this case sooty terns, arrived again on the island a select group of people would be named as candidates. These candidates would, in turn, choose young men called hopu to compete for them. Everyone would gather at Orongo, a nearby volcanic crater and gaze out over the water to a nearby islet. The first hopu to go to the islet and grab an egg without dying to drops, drowning, or shark attacks would win.
The winning candidate would be declared as the physical embodiment of makemake and given tribute and special honors. In return they had to go through a transformation, painting their skin, shaving their hair, growing nails into talons, and living in isolation. This was the Birdman, and the island was his cult.
And then the Europeans came and nearly everyone died from smallpox.