Volume 87 1978 > Volume 87, No. 3 > The place of near-shore islets in Easter Island prehistory, by Patrick C. McCoy, p 193-214
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Within a two-kilometre radius of remote Easter Island are a number of small islets or sea stacks, known by the common Polynesian name motu (Fig. 1). Geologically, they were probably once part of the main island, which is a composite of three major volcanic centres. 1 The largest of these near-shore islets, Motu Nui, is only about 3.6 hectares, and none of the motu has permanent sources of water. They were thus unsuitable for permanent habitation, but were used in former times in a number of other important ways.

Locations of historically important Easter Island near-shore islets.

Motu figure prominently in Easter Island folklore as retreats or refuges from battle. They also provided excellent fishing grounds and important sea bird and egg-collecting localities. Motu Nui played a central role in a bird cult - 194 unique to Easter Island and was the locus of an adolescent initiation rite. This islet was also used as a burial place and a possible depository for family heirlooms during historic times. Adjacent Motu Iti was exploited for obsidian, used in the manufacture of a variety of tools and implements.

In this article ethnographic data describing the varied uses of Easter Island motu are presented and combined with the results of a systematic archaeological survey of Motu Nui and Motu Iti. The purpose of this paper is to assess the importance of motu in Easter Island prehistory through an analysis of activities performed on these tiny land masses. Recommendations are made for future research on Motu Nui and Motu Iti, and an appendix gives a list of Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao Kao place-names.

Motu Iti, Motu Kao Kao (pinnacle), and sea cliffs of Rano Kau from Motu Nui.

Motu Nui, Motu Iti, and Motu Kao Kao, the only discrete cluster of larger islets, are located off the south-western headland of the island below the village of Orongo (Fig. 2). The disposition of four principal motu is described in a creation myth, translated by Métraux as “The Battle of the Four Islands”:

The four islands, Marotiri, Motu-nui, Motu-iti, and Motu-kaokao, were under the village of Orongo. Motu-nui, Motu-iti and Motu-kaokao had a fight with Marotiri and forced it to retreat. That was a hard fight and Marotiri got so tired that it ran away and established itself off Pui, - 195 where it remained alone. The three other islands abandoned the pursuit and returned where they are now. 2

In one version of a settlement legend, Motu Nui appears as the first landing place of the original founding population from the west. 3 The difficulties of landing on Motu Nui except on the calmest days, experienced by Routledge's party in 1914-15 4 and by us in 1968, makes me question this legendary information. There are much better landing places on the west coast, within sight of Motu Nui, and it is hard to imagine that people at sea for a month or more would put in to a tiny islet instead of to the main island just over a mile away.

Other legendary references to Motu Nui and the several smaller islets are attributable to a later time period, following the fission of the population into 10 primary tribal groups (mata). 5 Most references to motu, other than Motu Nui, are restricted to tales of internecine warfare, a common theme of Easter Island folklore. The off-shore islets were isolated enough to be favoured as a temporary refuge for weaker groups, although they are not far enough away to prevent pursuit in every case.

Marotiri, below the Poike Peninsula, and Motu Tautara, off the west coast, are the two most commonly mentioned island refuges, counterparts of refuge caves called ana kionga on the main island. Marotiri and Motu Nui are described as refuges in the legend of the war between Tuu and Hotu Iti, the respective names for the western and eastern tribal alliances. Two men, Makita and Rokeaua, were taken from hiding in a cave on Motu Nui, and Rokeaua was later killed and eaten. 6 A later episode relates the defeat of the Tupahotu tribe in a battle against the Miru, in which some of the Tupahotu escaped to Marotiri. According to the legend, the surviving Tupahotu were seized on four separate occasions, and their bodies were taken back and distributed for eating by the victors. The story continues on Marotiri where Kainga, a Tupahotu, killed a Miru man named Vaha. 7

In another legendary battle on the west coast, Taereka, a Tupahotu leader in the skill of spear-throwing, pursued a band of Miru spear throwers led by Hetereki. The Miru were forced to swim to Motu Tautara. Rather than continuing the pursuit to the islet, the Tupahotu leader ordered his men to scatter banana stumps on the shore, hoping that the Miru would identify them at a distance as yams. The illusion of food lured the Miru to shore, a battle followed, and numbers of both groups were killed. The bad blood between the two tribes continued. Later episodes involved the expulsion of Hetereki's men to the sea, forcing them to take refuge on motu along the entire west coast—from Motu Nui, Motu Iti, and Motu Kao Kao on the south, to the rocks and islets between Motu Tapu and Motu Tautara on the north. 8

Motu Nui is the scene of another legendary war-related episode with an - 196 odd twist. In “The Thirsty Warrior and His Captive”, a matatoa ‘warrior’ took a kio ‘prisoner’ to Motu Nui, where they lived together in a cave. The warrior intended to kill his captive and drink his blood, but the prisoner saved his life by supplying him with water. The prisoner swam to Rano Kau on a reed float and made an unbreakable container from a banana leaf dried over a fire. He then walked out on to the floating mat of bulrush reeds (ngaatu [Scirpus riparius]) on the freshwater lake inside the crater of Rano Kau. There he gathered moss, which he cleaned, soaked in water, and placed in the container. He returned to Motu Nui to present his captor with the bundle. 9 Although the circumstances of this tale are rather bewildering, it is of great interest for the information it provides about a method of transporting water to motu.

There is another reference to punishment by isolation on islets. A Chilean, Bienvenido Estella, collected a myth that the god Makemake took a man named Peku Angoohu to distant Sala y Gomez (Motu Matiro Hiva), 625 km north-east of Easter Island, because this person failed to make an umu ‘earth oven’ or any sacrifice for the god. Métraux had some doubts about the accuracy of Estella's account of the myth, since he mentioned European livestock, but he collected a similar legend involving both Makemake and a second god, Haua. 10

The fish and bird fauna of motu are the central themes of other Easter Island legends, providing some clues to the islets' economic importance. Motu Nui, Motu Iti, and Motu Kao Kao are noted for the abundance of fish that inhabit their waters, including a species favoured for eating, nanue (Kyphosus cinerascens Forst.). A legend tells of a young child who became a nanue 'a Hina ō'iō'i and swam past Marotiri to Motu Kao Kao, circling this pinnacle several times before disappearing below. 11

Sea birds are unusually elaborated motifs in local mythology and art. The principal god of the old religion, Makemake, was considered to be embodied in the egg of the manu tara ‘sooty tern’ (Sterna hirundo) and in petroglyphs of an anthropomorphic figure representing a tangata manu ‘birdman’. Before human settlement, the sea-bird population of Easter Island must have been large and unrestricted in nesting habitats. Increasing exploitation, particularly of eggs, is described in a myth that involves the intervention of Makemake and Haua. The two gods and a priestess drove the birds to a place called Kauhanga, but the people continued to hunt them. After three years Makemake and Haua, deciding it was time to try again to protect the birds, chased them to Vaiatare, a waterhole on the east rim of Ranu Kau crater. Another three years passed and the bird population continued to dwindle because of the egg-gatherers, so Makemake and Haua drove them to uninhabited Motu Nui. 12 Collection of eggs from Motu Nui became formalised in the annual manu tara cult ceremony. The myth is unusual in that it describes the events leading up to the origin of this religious cult, and also explains the development of a tapu as a conservation measure to protect a valuable food resource.

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According to Geiseler, who collected the myth in 1882, all sea-birds were tapu except for the three-month period between July and September. 13 Commencement of sea-bird exploitation was formalised in the ritualised search for the first egg of the migratory sooty tern that arrived during this part of the year. Ethnographic information on the details of the manu tara ‘sooty tern’ cult and the feast of the tangata manu ‘birdman’ is contradictory, but the role of Motu Nui in what was a pan-island religious event is reasonably well understood. The major tribes and lineages, and perhaps clans, that participated in the annual competition had specially selected hopu ‘servants’ who occupied caves on Motu Nui while awaiting the arrival of the sooty tem.

Routledge 14 was told that a line passing through one cave divided the islet into two parts and that hopu from the western and eastern tribes kept to their respective sides. Provisions and cooked food prepared by people at Orongo were carried on reed floats across the 2 kilometres between the main island and the motu. It is said that the hopu dried banana and sweet potato skins in the event that stormy weather prevented the continued transport of food supplies. 15

While festivities were taking place at Orongo, the hopu on Motu Nui recited prayers or incantations to ensure their success in finding the first egg. Informant testimony claims, however, that success was predetermined by Makemake, who intervened in designating the ‘servant’ who would find the egg for his master. Once the first egg had been found, the hopu climbed on to a rocky prominence called Rangi te Manu or Puku Rangi Manu, where he shouted to a man in a cave (Haka rongo manu ‘listening for the birds’) below Orongo, who then relayed the message to the victor. Rules of the cult demanded that the lucky hopu bring the egg back with him and present it to his employer. That chief received the title of tangata manu ‘birdman’. Métraux writes that this chief's lineage was the recipient of “certain material advantages and vast moral and religious benefits”. 16

According to Routledge, who interviewed the last surviving participant in the cult ceremonies at Orongo, and also obtained the most factual information on the bird cult, there was a second organised search for eggs on Motu Nui each year. This later event was the exclusive privilege of powerful matatoa ‘warriors’, known collectively as ao, who took up residence at the village of Mataveri, located on the lower, north-western slopes of Rano Kau. The ao went to Motu Nui to collect eggs and also young sooty terns, called piu. Routledge described the sequence of events that followed:

It was not until the “piu” had been obtained that it was permissible to eat the egg, the period of commencement being known as “toro”, and they were then consumed by the Mata-kio only, not by the Mata-toa; the first two or three eggs, it was explained, were given to god, to eat them would prove fatal. Some of the young manu-tara were kept in confinement till they were full grown, when a piece of red kapa was tied around the wing and leg and they were told “Kaho ti te hiva,” “Go - 198 to the world outside;” there was no objection to eating the young birds. 17

Allocation of the first eggs to a god suggests that this was a first-fruits ceremony. The reasoning behind the gift of eggs to matakio ‘defeated warriors’ by matatoa ‘warriors’ is unclear.

Motu Nui and Orongo were the sites of two other rites that were rich in bird symbolism. Comparatively few data exist on these ceremonies; Routledge and Métraux are again the primary sources of information. As part of an initiation ritual, children between the ages of 13 and 15 were put into seclusion. At the end of the seclusion period there was a ceremony that may have been an act of consecration. 18 The young who went through these ceremonies were called poki take and poki manu ‘bird children’. Routledge was told that the ceremony was abandoned around 1830, about 30 years before the arrival of missionaries, which probably accounts for the incomplete and contradictory information elicited from informants. An old woman, Viriamo, told Métraux that boys and girls went to live on Motu Nui in separate caves for a period of three months. They were apparently supplied by their parents with food, wooden ornaments called tahonga, special tapa breechcloths called hami mama, and pigment for painting their bodies. 19 The pigments included a natural reddish oxidised earth (kiea) and a white pigment made from the rotten stumps or branches of the marikuru tree (Sapindus saponaria). 20

The formal ceremony at the end of the seclusion period was called te manu mo ta poki ‘the bird for the child’, and it took place at Orongo. Boys accompanied men called tangata tapu manu ‘sacred birdmen’ to whom they presented an egg. Girls went through a different ceremony. They were required to dress and decorate themselves for inspection by male examiners called mata ngarahu ‘eye-paint’, a name also applied to the impressive group of petroglyphs at the southern end of Orongo village. The mata ngarahu examined each girl's vulva which was then represented by a carving on the rocks. 21 In the event that war precluded travel to Orongo, these initiation rites took place at Ahu Orohie, located at the statue quarry at Rano Raraku.

Despite the incompleteness of the ethnographic data, it is clear that Motu Nui, Orongo, and Mataveri were central places of great religious significance to Easter Islanders. This importance is reflected archaeologically in the size and complexity of Orongo village and in the modifications of naturally occurring caves on Motu Nui, including elaborate rock art on the walls and ceilings. The site of Orongo has been intensively studied; the reader is referred to the publications of Thomson, Routledge, Ferdon, and Mulloy. 22 Unfortunately, Mataveri was destroyed before it could be studied. A summary of earlier work on Motu Nui, and the results of a recent survey there and on adjacent Motu Iti, are presented below.

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Routledge's party made three short visits to Motu Nui in 1914-15. 23 A full account of her Easter Island research did not appear before her untimely death, and the subsequent loss of the expedition's field notes has made it impossible to obtain more information than that in her popular account, The Mystery of Easter Island. 24 Her descriptions imply that there were only two caves, thus indicating the limited scope of her work on Motu Nui. Alfred Métraux and Henri Lavachery, members of the joint Franco-Belgian Expedition to Easter Island in 1934-35, published notes on four caves and the rock art contained in them. 25 Father Sebastian Englert, 26 the Capuchin priest who lived on Easter Island for 33 years, presented additional information on five of the numerous caves.

The earlier work focused attention on the several larger caves, thought to have been the ones occupied by the hopu during their wait on the motu. Before 1968 a thorough search for other sites had not been made by archaeologists. Islanders had combed the island about 15 years earlier, according to information I gathered from several people, in response to a report by a man named Paoa Hitaki that rongorongo tablets were hidden in a concealed cave. Apparently nothing was found, but the rumour prompted some money-hungry men to search every square foot for these rare objects, which would fetch a good price from collectors. One of my field workers, Felipe Teao, claimed that several new caves were discovered as a result. These shelters had their entrances blocked by stones and obscured by the heavy mat of grass that covers the surfaces where there is a soil mantle.

In the two days we spent on Motu Nui (June 6-7, 1968), a total of 20 caves (ana) and smaller overhang shelters (karava) were recorded. Rough seas prevented us from landing on Motu Iti at that time, so a special trip was made on December 29 of the same year. We found and described two overhang shelters and a previously known, but unrecorded, obsidian source and quarry. The employment of local men in the survey enabled me to collect place-names for Motu Nui, Motu Iti, and Motu Kao Kao (see Appendix), and to check the names of plants and birds associated with these two islets.

Locations of archaeological sites and place-names are shown on Figure 3, an enlarged sketch map made from an aerial photograph. All shelter sites are naturally occurring features, so there is no social significance in the settlement pattern of the two motu. Although the majority of shelters are small, the number apparently was sufficient to accommodate the hopu and ‘bird children’ initiates during their respective stays on the islet, as we were unable to find the remains of any open-air dwellings. Evidence for artificial enlargement of some shelters, described in Table 1, suggests that excavation was preferable to the transport of poles and thatching materials to erect shelters above ground. The grass cover may obscure midden and artefacts in front of cave entrances. Where the grass was absent or not very thick, we found scattered obsidian flakes, some of which are tools. Few artefacts were

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Location of Motu Nui and Motu Iti archaeological sites and place-names.

found inside the caves, probably because of the number of people who have visited Motu Nui (mainly anthropologists and islanders); thus the structural modifications, rock art, and burial remains are the most important features for comparative study and interpretation at the present time.

An abbreviated description of the salient characteristics of each site on Motu Nui is presented in the table (below). In this table, under “Remarks”, I have noted earlier published sources of information to identify sites that have been described previously. Lavachery devoted considerable time to the petroglyphs and pictographs, and his descriptions and illustrations are by far the most detailed and accurate. Englert's work is more important for the - 201 traditional information presented. The following discussion of Motu Nui and Motu Iti sites is based on the information summarised in the table, earlier descriptions, and limited ethnographic data relating to specific habitations.

Inside the cave designated Site 1-534, said to be one of the habitations of the hopu, there was a small (60 cm high) stone statue called Te titaahanga o te henua ‘The boundary of the land’ that was removed by islanders shortly before the Routledge Expedition reached Easter Island. Mrs Routledge was able to obtain the statue by bartering, and a photograph of it was published in The Mystery of Easter Island. 27 It is now housed in the Pitt Rivers Museum. As the name indicates, the statue was a territorial boundary marker. An imaginary line, extending from the top of Motu Kao Kao (the point is called Te Ha'u o Nuku ‘Nuku's Hat’) over the top of the upright statue, divided Motu Nui into two parts. One side was occupied by the hopu of the western tribes and the other by representatives of the eastern tribes. Englert 28 wrote that the line also divided that cave into two halves, and Routledge 29 said that the line passed through this cave and one nearer the edge of the motu.

The addition of stone-walled entryways outside the dripline of natural rock shelters is a modification found in a number of other Easter Island sites. Masonry-walled entryways were found at eight caves, generally the larger ones. Frequently, the end-points below the dripline consist of large slabs set on end or on edge, above which several courses of stones are laid horizontally, sometimes cantilevered (Fig. 4a). In this respect, and in the quality of construction, they are similar to the masonry-walled houses at Orongo 30 These crawlways are consistently low and narrow (Fig. 4b) and are found in all known later forms of dwellings. Two reasonable alternative explanations have been advanced for their existence. Easter Island's location at 27°09′ south latitude means that the climate is subtropical to temperate; unlike nights on the central Pacific islands, Easter Island nights, especially in winter, are often cold. In addition, there are frequent strong winds. The combination of cold and windblown, driving rain probably required certain adjustments in domestic architecture, of which walled crawlways are one likely example. A less-probable explanation is the adaptive response to raiding in warfare. Viewed in terms of the religious contexts in which these shelters were occupied, it is unlikely that the narrow crawlways were for defensive purposes; rather, it is more reasonable to assume that they were constructed for greater living comfort by blocking out wind and retaining more heat inside, as the caves probably had fireplaces.

Motu Nui petroglyph and pictograph motifs are intimately and almost exclusively related to the bird cult. They include the same forms as those at Orongo, and representations of Makemake and birds are the most common motifs. All of the known rock art on the motu is confined to the interiors of caves. These factors suggest that much of the ethnographically described preparatory activity of the hopu took place in the seclusion of each group's abode as an act of veneration for Makemake. The formally restrictive and

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a. Stacked-stone crawlway showing cantilevered slabs at top (Site 1-535)., b. Prepared crawlway entrance to Motu Nui habitation cave (Site 1-535).
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secluded nature of this religious art suggests, moreover, that the walled mouths and long, horizontal shaft entryways of some larger caves (see Table) may have been constructed for reasons other than those already discussed. Recalling the competitiveness of the egg hunt and the far-reaching moral and economic benefits bestowed upon the winning group, it is reasonable to assume that privacy while performing rituals to ensure success was highly desirable.

The presence of Makemake and bird motifs is easily understood in the context of the island's settlement for basically religious purposes. This association almost certainly extends to one other motif, a dancing paddle, called ao. Presumably, these were used by the hopu on the motu. Englert 31 found a carving in one cave of a face (he described it as human, but it is a common variant of Makemake) with a line extended below the chin to represent a portion of the shaft of an ao. He stated that the ao was an insignia of the ‘birdman’. It may be significant that ao was the collective name of the warriors permitted to take part in the search for ‘sooty tern’ eggs on Motu Nui. Lavachery 32 found figures of ‘birdmen’ in only two caves, and none of them are in the classic Orongo style with the upper part of the leg drawn up closely to the torso (Fig. 5). The Motu Nui examples are, instead, more similar to anthropomorphic birdman figures on rongorongo tablets. One wooden breast ornament, a rei-miro, is figured. The ends of this crescent-shaped object are carved in the form of cocks' heads. Two representations of boats or ships, one with three masts, are probably European sailing vessels, which would mean that they post-date initial European contact in 1722. 33 A figure of a four-legged animal with a long tail is also probably post-contact, as there were no pigs or dogs on the island before contact.

The occurrence of human burials on Motu Nui was noted earlier. Routledge 34 found five skeletons inside the cave designated Site 1-547. Four of these were laid out side-by-side, and the fifth, near the entrance, was in a position that she thought was the result of hurriedly shoving in the body. Métraux 35 saw only two, which is the same number we found. In the only other cave Routledge saw, she found an unspecified number of skeletal remains, which seemed to have been wrapped in tapa cloth. 36 No visible evidence of tapa was found in our survey, but it is obvious that all of the burials have been greatly disturbed since Routledge's time. Métraux 37 was unable to find the second group of burials noted by Routledge, but we found bones in three caves. Métraux disagreed with Routledge's claim that the two caves were primary sepulchres on the basis that presence of art work precluded such a possibility. I concur with Métraux and would add that the burials probably post-date 1866-67, the accepted year for the last ceremony of the bird cult. Historically, it is known that the early converts to Christianity frequently removed the bodies of kin from European-type tombs and took the remains elsewhere, usually to abandoned lineage ahu or some

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Tangatu manu ‘birdman’ petroglyphs at Orongo village — Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao Kao in background.

other place within the old kin-based land divisions.

One of the most interesting new finds was a heap of red earthen pigment (kiea mea mea) partly concealed behind a stone wall at the back of Site 1-535, a cave. It did not appear to be a natural deposit, but rather a stockpile that might very well have been brought out to the motu. Red is one of the dominant colours in all Easter Island pictographs, and this particular pigment is clearly the same as that used in decorating the walls and ceilings of the several painted caves on the motu. If the ‘bird children’ initiates used this pigment, it was probably for the single purpose of painting their bodies, as it is doubtful that they made the pictographs or painted over the several petroglyphs that relate for the most part to the bird cult.

The few names of Motu Nui caves that I collected agreed with those recorded earlier by Englert. The most famous of the named caves is Ana ta humu ta mata pea, which legend specifies as having been the site of the first tattooing done on the island. 38 The name translates as ‘the tattoos made on the calf of the leg [humu] and below the eyes [mata pea]’. My informants - 205 claimed that the name applied to Site 1-547, while Englert's sketch of a petroglyph makes it Site 1-545. The only other remembered names for caves on Motu Nui are Ana tuki mata turu, Ana pupuhi toto, and Ana ai patete. The last-mentioned is a hole on the south side of the island (Fig. 3), which can only be entered safely from the sea. We were able to look down into it from above. There did not appear to be any evidence of habitation and thus it was not given a site designation. Ana pupuhi toto is the same kind of natural feature. It is uncertain which site is Ana tuki mata turu.

A tradition referred to by Englert associates the pigment-covered, large anthropomorphic face in Site 1-547 with a famous and feared warrior named Ure a Rei. According to the tale, he was killed by two other warriors, Tema and Pou a Vaka, who lived for a while in this cave. 39 Earlier, I remarked that the petroglyph is not of a man's face, but a widespread stylistic variant of Makemake representations.


A distance of only 50 metres separates Motu Nui and Motu Iti ‘Little Islet’. This second of the three well-known south-western coast islets measures 160 by 140 metres maximum, with a land area of c. 1.5 hectares. The geological formation is the same as Motu Nui, but because of the smaller size, there are fewer overhangs and niches suitable for habitation. Site 1-552 is an overhang in a conglomeritic ash-tuff deposit with a maximum front-to-back depth of 4 metres and breadth at the mouth of 3.9 metres. The maximum vertical clearance, at the mouth, is just over 1 metre. Site 1-553 is a similar overhang in the same geological formation. It is roughly 1 metre deep and 2 metres wide at the mouth, with a ceiling height of c. 50 cm. A few obsidian flakes were found inside both shelters, indicating that some preparatory flaking took place outside of the source area, Site 1-554. A change in sea conditions forced us to get off the motu before we could properly record this obsidian quarry. The best we could do was to get a couple of quick photographs before jumping into the waiting boat.


Easter Island folktales are clear in establishing the repeated use of near-shore islets as places of refuge. On some of the larger, high islands and archipelagos of Eastern Polynesia, such as Hawaii, tracts of land were set aside as refuge areas. Even more widespread were defensive settlements in the form of hilltop forts. 40 Despite the seeming constancy of internal warfare in the later phases of Easter Island prehistory, neither of these two relatively common Eastern Polynesian adaptive measures developed. Instead, inferior groups fled to motu or took refuge in lava tubes and caves.

Elsewhere, I have suggested that the abundance of potentially usable underground hiding places was a major determining factor in the restricted range of local defensive habitations. 41 The island's rolling, hilly landscape, dominated by numbers of large cinder cones, was certainly amenable to the - 206 construction of hilltop fortresses like the New Zealand Maori pa. Although small in comparison with many other Polynesian islands, the interior of Easter Island offered a good amount of land for development as formal refuges like those known elsewhere.

If we accept the information presented in local legends, the mortality rate of groups that sought refuge on motu was extremely high. Because of their proximity to the main island, and the lack of more distant, accessible islands, retreat to a motu must have been a final act of desperation that held little chance of survival. The observations of early European explorers in the eighteenth century suggest that groups defeated in war could not get off the island to resettle elsewhere, even if they had wanted to. By that time, and perhaps even several hundred years earlier, there were only a handful of small, patchwork canoes, incapable of long-distance voyaging. 42 The only remaining option open to weak groups was retreat to caves or motu.

Besides the problem of proximity, which meant easy pursuit or stationing of guards to await the return of refugees, there was the related problem of subsistence on motu, which lacked potable water and many food resources. Refugees had to feed on seaweed (auke) and fish, and, if they were more fortunate, on poporo berries (Solanum nigrum). 43

Motu Nui stands apart as the islet used for a variety of purposes: ceremony, ritual seclusion, burial, and food procurement. The symbolic relationship of the ‘bird cult’ and ‘bird children’ initiation rites suggests that the first two uses are at least as old as the establishment of Orongo village. Available radiocarbon dates indicate construction at Orongo by fifteenth century A.D. and possibly earlier. 44 Evidence has been presented for the occasional use of Motu Nui as a burial place in historic times, very possibly as a relocation centre for corpses originally placed in Christian cemeteries. Procurement of birds and eggs for food was undoubtedly an old, established practice, continuing to a lesser extent today.

The systematic survey of Motu Nui and adjacent Motu Iti permits a new assessment of the occupation pattern of these two islets. Earlier research on Motu Nui was of limited scope. Only five of the total 20 habitation shelters had been located and described. As a result, the prevailing impression has been that there were few habitations, and that these must have been the only residences of the hopu, since most of them contained religious rock art of the type found at the ceremonial village of Orongo.

Feature analysis of all Motu Nui caves shows that petroglyphs or pictographs or both are present in only eight of the total 20 shelters. There can be little doubt that at least several of those caves were the ones occupied by the hopu. The greater number of smaller, cramped caves may have been used only in those years when there were more men searching for the ‘sooty tern’ egg, and perhaps by the children put into seclusion on this motu. While the bird cult was still a functioning institution, there may have been a tapu placed on the primary hopu caves, preventing occupation by others not of this privileged group. The existence of elaborate rock art in some caves and - 207 not in others hints at this variation in use. It may be that undecorated caves were simply additional sleeping quarters, and that the more secluded caves, with Makemake and bird motifs particularly, were primary gathering places where rituals were conducted.

A significantly absent feature on Motu Nui is the earth oven. It confirms the ethnographic report that food for both the hopu and ‘bird children’ initiates was brought out to Motu Nui by servants or adult members of the children's families. From an archaeological perspective, this is unfortunate, because the occurrence of ovens would have made it easier to date temporally discrete occupations and to develop a chronology of motu use.

There is an obvious need for excavations on Motu Nui, and for a detailed study of the obsidian quarry on Motu Iti. Controlled excavations should be undertaken on Motu Nui in the future to (1) characterise the portable artefact assemblages associated with the known uses of this islet, (2) define dietary patterns, and (3) recover organic materials and obsidian for dating. It will be of great interest to know more about the activities of the occupants, the types of food they consumed, and the chronological relationship of Motu Nui occupation to Orongo Village. The cave deposits on Motu Nui hold great potential for definition of the general character and possible temporal changes in a fundamentally ritualistic settlement pattern that was one spatial and behavioural component of two larger cultural events: a bird cult and a rite of passage.

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Site No. Maximum Interior Dimensions 45 Stacked Stone Entryways 46 Petroglyphs Pictographs Human Burials Remarks
1-531 47 2.20 × 3.00 × 1.20 m 1.30 × 0.60 × 1.20 m Frigate bird (makohe); carved initials Frigate bird petroglyph described and illustrated by Lavachery (1939:86, fig. 402) and Englert (1948:249). Lavachery noted another motif of a “human mask” (Lavachery 1939:fig. 403) which we did not see.
1-532 2.40 × 2.20 × 1.20 m Anthropomorphic figure (possibly a statue or a moai ‘image’), frigate bird, unidentified lines Names in red pigment Opening 75 cm wide and 80 cm high. Bottom of anthropomorphic petroplyph recently uncovered, frigate bird petroglyph recently outlined with red pigment (kiea?). Adze marks on walls and ceilings indicate that the interior was partially modified.
1-533 2.00 × 2.50 × 1.20 m Probably little used, except for sleeping.
1-534 c. 6.00 × 6.00 × 2.00 m Obsidian flakes on surface, shaft-like opening 1.20 m wide and 70 cm high, central floor area has been partially excavated, 20-30 cm size rocks and obsidian flakes on floor. 5 petroglyphs and pictographs described and illustrated by Lavachery (1939:86-8, figs. 404-8) and Englert (1948:248). In addition to the rock art previously described, we found a petroglyph of an animal with four legs and long tail, which appears to be a dog. It is doubtful that Métraux and Lavachery could
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            have missed seeing it, suggesting that it was made after 1935. This is one of caves presumably occupied by hopu in bird cult ceremonies.
1-535 4.20 × 3.30 × 1.45 m 85 cm wide, 1.22 m high 2 representations of Makemake, 1 frigate bird 1bird (frigate) Well-constructed walled entryway that exhibits use of cantilevering technique. 2 bird petroglyphs found above entrance inside. Wall 1 m wide, 50 cm high at back of cave behind which is a deposit of kiea mea mea (red ochre). Make-make petroglyphs located on side walls just above floor level. This appears to be Lavachery's cave 101 with figs. 379-91.
1-536 4.50 × 3.00 × 1.20 m 3 tibia fragments Long, narrow entryway (2.5 m × 40-50 cm wide × 40 cm high) in front of small interior chamber, which appears to have been partially excavated. The rock formation is a tufa-like deposit.
1-537 c. 10 × 1.7 × 0.90 m Two entrances connected by long, narrow low chamber. Living area on the south is a room 3.10 × 1.70 × 0.90 metres. South entrance 1.50 m wide and 40 cm high with rock pavement.
1-538 2.00 × 2.50 × 0.85 m Entrance 1.30 m wide, 70 cm high.
1-539 2.00 × 2.00 × 0.65 m 2m-wide entrance elevated above interior chamber.
1-540 3.00 × 2.00 × 0.80 cm 1.70 × 0.60 × 0.70 m Entrance 80 cm wide, 40 cm high. Enclosing wall constructed of angular stones up to the height of the natural overhang.
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Table 1—Summary descriptions of Motu Nui Caves and overhang shelters—continued

Site No. Maximum Interior Dimensions2 Stacked Stone Entryways3 Petroglyphs Pictographs Human Burials Remarks
1-541 c. 6.00 × 0.80 × 0.30 m Located on cliff above a small embayment. Measurements are for the entryway as the shelter is largely filled in with the slope wash. Entryway is a long, narrow tube sloping inward, probably to a larger room further down and back.
1-542 4.00 × 2.50 × 0.70 m Single course of stones Unfinished image-like motif, and representation of Makemake Entrance 2 m wide, 1 m high. Unfinished petroglyph similar in form to the one in 1-532. Felipe Teao said this cave was partially excavated by islanders; it is now filling in.
1-543 unobtainable ? ? ? Entryway blocked by a stone and earth fill. Low, narrow tube-like entryway that undoubtedly opens up into actual living area like some other caves.
1-544 1.10 × 5.60 × 0.50 m Shallow low overhang of type called karava (McCoy 1976:35). Probable sleeping areas in niches at either end of the overhang.
1-545 4.00 × 1.62 × 0.95 m 1.00 × 0.40 × 1.20 m Fishhook (mangai)? A symmetrical hand-excavated tube in a tufa-like deposit with an entrance 90 cm wide and 56 cm high. Masonry wall at entrance on east side only, interior was quite wet. Second possible petroglyph at base of east wall, petroglyph illustrated by Englert (1948:246).
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1-546 1.60 × 2.20 × 0.70 m - - - - Small shelter of the karava type.
  0.70 m          
1-547 6.00 × 5.00 × 1.50 m 70 cm wide × 60 cm high 3 relief carvings of Makemake, one covered with kiea mea mea, others unclear as to motif; others were recorded by Lavachery (1939) “Human mask” (Lavachery 1939:fig. 398) Incomplete skeletal remains of at least 2 individuals on oval-shaped stone platform 2 m long, 1.1 m wide Burial platform on surface. Described by Routledge (1919:275), Métraux (1940:332), Lavachery (1939:84-6, figs. 393-401), and Englert (1948:247-48). Much of the rock art is now covered by mosses. Felipe Teao claimed that some islanders had “excavated” here in early 1950s.
1-548 3.30 × 3.20 × 1.25 m 1.50 × 0.60 × 0.75 m 2 carvings of Makemake Recently pencilled figure of a duck(?), and an unidentified object (mata'a?) Crania in masonry wall at entrance, fragments of long bones among stones of what appears to have been a burial platform at the back of the cave Burial platform(?) on surface. Cantilevered masonry-wall entryway 60 cm wide, 75 cm high inside with dimensions of 80 × 40 cm outside.
1-549 3.10 × 2.40 × 0.82 m 1.50 × 0.50 × c. 0.50 m 1 representation of Makemake Well-constructed masonry wall entryway consisting of parallel walls outside natural opening.
1-550 unobtainable ? ? ? Filled-in cave entered through a nearly vertical shaft 1-2 metres long that continues horizontally for an unknown distance.
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Location Place Name Meaning
Motu Nui Ana pupuhi toto Uncertain; pupuhi means to wound by shooting and toto is the word for blood, thus suggesting an act of violence resulting in bloodshed.
  Ana ta humu ta mata pea Legendary cave where the first tattoos were executed; humu refers to those made on the calf of the leg and mata pea to those below the eye.
  Ana ai patete Unknown.
  Ana tuki mata turu Informants claimed that sexual intercourse took place in this cave, which agrees with the name.
  Ara hihiri A name for a path or trail (ara); hihiri is a term that applies to climbing on all fours, thus alluding to the difficulty of going up and down the path.
  Papa roto ongere Unknown; papa is the general term for a flat rock outcrop which is true of this bare segment of the island.
  Pu ruhi Refers to the holes (pu) occupied by the ruhi fish.
  Puku rangi manu Referred to in the text as the outcrop (puku) where the successful hopu shouted (rangi) back to the main island when he had found the first egg of the sooty tern (manu tara).
  Kauva'e ‘Mandible’; use of the term in this context is unknown.
  Taki taki te hoe Unknown; taki taki is probably a reduplication of taki ‘to economise, save, keep, use sparingly’; hoe is the word for knife or other sharp cutting instrument and is also used today to refer to boat oars.
Motu Iti Puku pipi tau makohe Informants said that men came to this place to collect eggs of the frigate bird (makohe).
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  Ahu o Koi Said to be the place where the remains of a man named Koi were placed.
  Ko hami te mora Unknown.
Motu Kao Kao Hau o Nuku ‘Nuku's Hat.’
  Ko hekene Unknown.

The work on Motu Nui was part of a larger site survey carried out by the author under the direct supervision of William Mulloy in 1968. Financial support was provided by the International Fund for Monuments, Inc., National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Chilean Government. Trips to the islets were made possible through Regino Calderon, who generously offered the use of his fishing boat. Felipe Reao, Rafael Rapu, Herb Pownall and his son, Paul, aided the author in conducting the Motu Nui survey. Rafael Rapu and Juan Haoa assisted in the site recording on Motu Iti and, together with Felipe Teao and the late Leon Laharoa, were the principal informants in the elicitation of place-names. The photographs were taken by Herb Pownall and the base maps were prepared by Mario Arevalo. A first draft of the paper was read by Bill Ayres and Sergio Rapu, and the final manuscript by Grant McCall. Sincere thanks to all of these people.

  • BAKER, P.E., 1967. “Preliminary Account of Recent Geological Investigations on Easter Island.” Geological Magazine, 104:116-22.
  • BROWN, J. Macmillan, 1924. The Riddle of the Pacific. London, T. Fisher Unwin.
  • COOK, James, 1777. Second Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World, Performed in the “Resolution” and “Adventure,” 1772-75. 2 vols. London, Strahan and Cadell.
  • ENGLERT, P. Sebastian, 1948. La Tierra de Hotu Matu'a: historia, etnologia, y lengua de la Isla de Pascua. Santiago, Padre las Casas.
  • FERDON, Edwin N., jun., 1961. “The Ceremonial Center of Orongo,” in T. Heyerdahl and E. Ferdon (eds.), Reports of the Norwegian Expedition to Easter Island and the East Pacific, Vol. 1. The School of American Research and the Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe.
  • GROUBE, L.M., 1970. “The Origin and Development of Earthwork Fortification in the Pacific,” in R.C. Green and M. Kelly (eds.), Studies in Oceanic Culture History, Vol. 1. Pacific Anthropological Records 11. Department of Anthropology, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.
  • LAVACHERY, Henri, 1939. Les Pétroglyphes de L'île de Pâcques. Anvers (Belgium), De Sikkel.
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  • MCCOY, Patrick C., 1976. Easter Island Settlement Patterns in the Late Prehistoric and Protohistoric Periods. Bulletin 5, Easter Island Committee, International Fund for Monuments, New York.
  • MÉTRAUX, Alfred, 1940. Ethnology of Easter Island. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 160, Honolulu.
  • MULLOY, William, 1975. Investigation and Restoration of the Ceremonial Center of Orongo, Easter Island. Part 1. Bulletin 4, Easter Island Committee, International Fund for Monuments, New York.
  • ROGGEVEEN, Jacob, 1722 [1908]. Extracts from the Official Log of Mynheer J. Roggeveen (1721-22). Hakluyt Society, Second Series, Vol. 13, Cambridge.
  • ROUTLEDGE, Katherine, 1917. “The Bird Cult of Easter Island.” Folk-lore, 28: 337-81.
  • —— 1919. The Mystery of Easter Island: The Story of an Expedition. London, Hazell, Watson, and Viney.
  • SMITH, Carlyle S., 1961. “Radio Carbon Dates from Easter Island,” in T. Heyerdahl and E. Ferdon (eds.), Reports of the Norwegian Expedition to Easter Island and the East Pacific, Vol. 1. The School of American Research and the Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe.
  • THOMSON, William J., 1891. “Te Pito Te Henua or Easter Island.” U.S. National Museum Annual Report for 1888-1889, Washington.
1   Baker 1967:119.
2   Métraux 1940:389.
3   Thomson 1889:226; Brown 1924:40.
4   Routledge 1919:257.
5   Métraux 1940:120-2.
6   Métraux 1940:76.
7   Métraux 1940:76-9.
8   Métraux 1940:380.
9   Métraux 1940:381.
10   Métraux 1940:329.
11   Métraux 1940:372.
12   Métraux 1940:313.
13   Métraux 1940:312.
14   Routledge 1917:344-5.
15   Métraux 1940:333-5.
16   Métraux 1940:331.
17   Routledge 1917:349-50.
18   Métraux 1940:105.
19   Routledge 1919:fig. 114.
20   Routledge 1917:354; Métraux 1940:105.
21   Métraux 1940:106.
22   Thomson 1891; Routledge 1917, 1919; Ferdon 1961; Mulloy 1975.
23   Routledge 1919:258.
24   Routledge 1919.
25   Métraux 1940; Lavachery 1939.
26   Englert 1948.
27   Routledge 1919:261, fig. 111.
28   Englert 1948:246.
29   Routledge 1919:261.
30   See Ferdon 1961.
31   Englert 1948:248.
32   Lavachery 1939.
33   Lavachery 1939:figs. 401, 405, 407.
34   Routledge 1919:275.
35   Métraux 1940:332.
36   Routledge 1919:275.
37   Métraux 1940:332.
38   Englert 1948:246.
39   Englert 1948:247-8
40   Groube 1970:133.
41   McCoy 1976
42   Roggeveen 1722:19; Cook 1777:292-3.
43   Métraux 1940:150.
44   Ferdon 1961:250; Smith 1961:394-5.
45   Maximum interior dimensions are presented in the order of depth (front to back), width and ceiling height.
46   The dimensions of masonry-walled entryways are in order: length, width and height.
47   The site designation scheme is that devised by Mulloy in 1968 for the survey and future work on the island; it replaces the earlier system used by the Norwegian Expedition (1955-56). The numeral 1 denotes survey quadrangle number 1 (Rano Kau) and the second part is the specific site designation.