I Am Birdman, Hear Me Roar
The author on Rano Kau.
Credit: Joshua Paul

The first time I saw Orongo, the archaeological site of the Easter Island Birdman cult, the hair on the back of my neck bristled with acrophobia and awe. It had taken our tour group all afternoon to hike to the top of Rano Kau volcano, hoofing it single file along the knife-edge rim trail to where it broadened and flattened at the cliffs of Orongo. Orongo the Bizarro! Stonehenge for the Unhinged! The grassy plateau, studded with obsessively etched boulders, seemed precariously perched between the interior crater and a thousand-foot drop to the crashing Polynesian surf. In the fading light we admired the hundreds of petroglyphs carved by the Rapa Nui (as Easter Islanders call themselves and their island), picking out the depictions of gods and heroes and oversize vaginas.

"These are called komari," said our Rapa Nui guide, Nicolas, pointing to the unmistakable labial shapes – Stone Age bathroom graffiti. And the googly-eyed dude with the pendulous nose? That was Make Make, the creator. He was etched everywhere too, a Rapa Nui Kilroy. Clustered at the cliff's edge were the Birdmen themselves, high reliefs of plump little anthropomorphic fellows with beaked heads and praying hands, who seemed to wince at the might and magnitude of a fearsome universe – and certainly fearsome events had occurred on the unfortunate island.

Those praying figures, Nicolas explained, represented the winners of the annual Birdman race, a sacred ritual that ingeniously married politics and religion with the kind of hysteria and absurd rules usually reserved for Japanese game shows. We'd already picked up the gist of the yarn from the standard National Park information displays: the dates, from the mid-17th century to 1867, that bracketed the Birdman cult, and the purpose of the race, which was to choose a new king. As we gathered around him, Nicolas explained how every austral spring, the Rapa Nui of yore would troop to Orongo to await the return of the great flocks of succulent migratory terns that nested on offshore islets. These were hard times, post–societal collapse, and while the Rapa Nui were not exactly starving, their diet had become monotonous in the extreme by winter's end – yams, yams, and more yams. Their trip to Orongo was the climax of a weeks-long party of pure anticipation. You can imagine everyone salivating for protein as they kept watch on the blue horizon.

And then, Make Make willing, here came the birds, in their screeching multitudes, wheeling around their nesting grounds on the three islets lined up in a row below Orongo. The dancing and chanting would've risen to an ecstatic frenzy, everyone whacked in a Birdman trance. Then the reigning Birdman king stepped forth, flanked by his priests. He would be impressively painted, bizarrely shaved. He'd hold up a hand, a hand so imbued with spiritual power that he touched nothing with it all year and grew the nails till they curled like claws. Then the hand dropped. "Go!" commanded the king. And they went – everyone willing to risk it all – over the cliff and into the sea, thrashing like mad for Motu Nui, the largest and farthest of the three islets. To win you had to snatch up the first sooty tern egg of the year and make it back to Orongo, egg intact.

"There were no rules once the race started," Nicolas told us, warming to the darker aspects. "You could drown the one with the egg, yes. He could be hit on the head with a rock and killed. Or very simple, you break the egg of the guy and go back for your own."

The way Nicolas told it, the Birdman competition was a balls-to-the-wall biathlon, a proto-extreme sports race. I was fixated on the climbing portion – the steep cliff and the thousand-foot drop. Did they really go straight down the hairy bastard?

"Yes, most did," Nicolas said. "Some would go a longer way" – he gestured toward the crater rim beyond Orongo, where it dipped down some hundreds of feet to a saddle and a collapsed slope of rubble, a tempting chicken route – "but they lost time."

And mana, I figured, the great intangible good of any gratuitous enterprise. The Rapa Nui were all about mana. Mana was success; mana was confidence. It was their money, metaphysically conceived: a spiritual bank account.

"The only thing was to be first back with the egg. Then you became Birdman, the king for the year."

"Tangata Manu," said one of us. So the display boards said.

"Yes," the guide nodded. "And you would marry the most desirable woman on the island, of course. The woman with the biggest clitoris."

All eyebrows rose. Excuse me?

"We ought to do it!" I said.

All eyebrows turned to me.

The guide smiled at my bravado but shook his head. "No, the rocks are sharp. You will bleed in the water. And there are many sharks."

I glanced around at our group for support. Anyone? They were game enough hikers, but landlubbers at heart. And our tour was a tightly scheduled affair, with no wiggle room for spontaneous risk taking. I ended up going home with what seemed a good deal of knowledge, but very little mana.