|Cave paintings from the Birdman (Tangata manu) period in Rapa Nui.|
18th or 19th centuries.
All photos by Wendy Stefansson.
"We are each of us painting on our own cave walls, each of us imagining / imaging /conjuring the god we need. Creating god in our own image, the image of our need projected onto the universe."
28 February 2011
The culture / faith / economy that produced the moai statues -- the giant stone heads -- on Easter Island, came to a cataclysmic end in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries. Through a "perfect storm" of converging catastrophes -- overpopulation, environmental degradation, generations of inter-tribal warfare and the raids of Peruvian slave traders -- the population was decimated. Reduced from a peak population of over 10,000 to a mere 111, and barely able to support even those few on the resources that remained, the people lost faith.
Carefully (and literally) toppling their already ancient moai, the symbols of their longstanding belief in the power of their ancestors to protect them, the Rapa Nui people turned to a previously less-esteemed god known as Make-Make, the creator of humanity. Represented as a man with a bird's head, this new-old god incorporated both the frailty and neediness of the human being with his primary source of food; both hunger and nourishment, emptiness and fullness. The rise of the Birdman god coincided with a shift away from power structures based on heredity towards a new social order based on merit. The high chief in any given year was the one whose clan member won the Birdman competition, an annual event which provided a mechanism for the rotation of leadership. It was a system that facilitated co-operation among the tribes and brought decades of warfare to an end; and it was based on a god who represented creation and abundance, not power.
The god you choose to believe in can change everything.