Easter Island’s Rock Art

The Rise & Fall of Easter Island’s Culture

easter island tongariki face
Face panel at Tongariki

Archaeological studies have been in progress for many years on Easter Island. However, the majority of studies and excavations have focused on the monolithic statues (moai) and ceremonial shrines (ahu). Many early visitors and researchers noted and commented upon a few petroglyphs, but little attention was directed towards the island’s rock art, either generally or specifically. This could be due to the lesser visibility of the rock carvings: the statues and ahu stand out clearly and dramatically in the landscape, but the petroglyphs and the paintings are almost always more obscure.

Despite unusual design motifs and the large sizes of many of the designs, the Easter Island rock art was overlooked until 1981 when an intensive documentation project began. It soon became apparent that the rock carvings and paintings represented a body of work that was both sophisticated and unique.

easter island birdman mata ngarau

Superimposition of figures at Mata Ngarau

On Easter Island, petroglyphs are located in every sector of Rapa Nui where there are suitable surfaces. Favored locations are smooth areas of lava flow, referred to as ‘papa’, or on smooth basalt boulders. Most of these surfaces occur along coastal areas and are often associated with major ceremonial centers.

Some of the rock art appears to refer to status, some to clan identification; others were offerings or supplications; some marked the location of special rites and ceremonies, and some were related to the esoteric and religious aspects of the society.

Aside from the monolithic statues, the birdman image best represents Easter Island. This distinctive motif, with its huge eye and bird beak combined with a crouching human figure in profile, dominates the petroglyph site of Orongo. There are 1,274 documented petroglyphs nearly all of them the birdman motif, clear evidence of Orongo’s association with the Rapa Nui birdman ceremony.

easter island birdman motifs

A Bird, Komari & Birdman Motifs

At the Orongo site, the petroglyph motif evolved from an elongated form into the highly stylized “developed” design.

Some important ‘ahu’ have, as part of their structure, elegantly carved basalt stones – ‘paenga’ – with petroglyphs on them. Paintings can be found in several caves as well as in stone dwellings, such as at Orongo and the burial cave at Ana Mahina with its carved and painted long-nosed Makemake faces.

easter island ana mahina cave easter island ana kai tangata cave easter island ana kai tangata cave
Ana Mahina Cave Ana Kai Tangata Ana Kai Tangata
easter island makemake face easter island orongo stone house easter island orongo stone houses
Makemake Face Stone House at Orongo Orongo Stone Houses

About sherrycottle@gmail.com

Sherry Cottle Graham is a freelance writer and the author of Blood Brothers - The Forgotten Children of the Mound Builders. This book should be available on June 1, 2013.
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