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Te Kāhui Kura Māori, Volume 0, Issue 1

Rapa Nui Precontact: Custom Law Comparisons with Aotearoa

Rapa Nui Precontact: Custom Law Comparisons with Aotearoa

This paper draws upon Eddie Durie’s 1994 discussion document on the nature of Māori Custom Law, before European contact in New Zealand. My intention is to ask, helped by ethnological, historical, anthropological and archaeological material, whether Easter Island (Rapa Nui) precontact society shared some of the characteristics of Māori custom society, understood as 'the integrated body of holistic and ingrained rules which even though exposed to external influences naturally adapted to new circumstances by flexible conversion to endure through time’ (Keenan 2008).

This paper will focus on a select range of questions relating to ancient Rapa Nui’s customary mores when compared to precontact Māori, rather than analysing every implication which may derive from exploring all available resources of both peoples. To organize a well-ordered sequence of the events I am basing my research on the studies of Routledge (1920), Metraux (1930s), Englert (1940s – 70s), McCall (1970s - 90s), Fischer (2005) and Hunt (2006 – 2007).

Keywords: Rapa Nui, custom law, Māori


Polynesian flexible lore

In his ground-breaking 1994 discussion paper Custom Law, E.T. Durie affirms that ‘Māori mental constructs were based on cycles in preference to lineal progression’ (Durie 2004:6). Unlike western unilinear concepts of time, the ‘eternal present’ (past and future) of Polynesians was subject to revision (Fischer 2005) by accommodations upon which oral traditions about ancestral settlement and beliefs (Barthel 1978) were constantly revised. On Rapa Nui, these adjustments occurred for many reasons, most of them very dramatic. These particular circumstances might altogether turn the scientific reconstruction of the Rapa Nui story into a laborious comment which would be fallacious if we did not take into consideration the following facts:

Peruvian Slave Raid and missionary intervention

The Peruvian slave ship incursion during 1862 and 1863 severely decimated the population and its inner organization. During those years Easter islanders were subject to ‘slave or labour raids’ (McCall 1997:112) from Peruvian ships. A massive kidnapping of approximately 1,500 people, equivalent to 35% of the island total population (CVHNT 2003: II-60), occurred at that time. Of these, only a few survivors could return to the island by ‘repatriation’ (Fischer 2005:91) bringing with them deadly diseases such as tuberculosis, dysentery and smallpox which rapidly infected the remaining island population (McCall 1976:66).

So many had died by 1865 that it was impossible to bury all of them (Fischer 2005:91). By 1871 only 175 people were alive on Rapa Nui (Routledge 1920:208) and by 1877 only 111. Easter islanders ‘were gathered into one settlement’, the Hanga Roa village, leaving behind ‘sprinkled over the island’ their original lifestyles. The consequences of this rapid depopulation were the loss of the last ariki or chief (Routledge 1920:205,210) and their connections to ancestral territorial organization.

One further consequence of these events was the disappearance of ‘the island’s priests and bearers of traditional chants and genealogies’ (Fischer 2005:91), and consequently many oral traditions. These events seemed to be ‘sufficient to shroud most of the details’ of Rapa Nui’s complex past (McCall 1978:130). The small number of survivors ‘retained only shattered fragments of their former sophisticated culture’ (Mulloy in Englert 1970:15) which were increasingly submerged under western influence during the 20th century.

French catholic missionaries

During 1864 to the 1880s, Catholic missionaries from the Tahitian branch of the Congrégation des Sacrés-Cœurs de Jésus et de Marie introduced Christianity. They also banned every island form of ‘paganism’ which marked the decease of everlasting customs and old non-Christian traditions. Through their evangelising, different missions eliminated remaining pre-contact mores like the “Birdman Cult”, or tangata manu quest, and several others such as ‘nudity, tattooing, most sexual practices, ritual performances, traditional chanting, singing and dancing’ (Fischer 2005:99). ‘Very little information on social organization can be found in the missionaries' accounts of Easter Island. This is not due to their lack of interest but rather to the series of catastrophes which befell Easter Island immediately preceding the advent of the missionaries; and which removed from the tribes their ancient social importance’ (Metraux 1971: 89).


Before attempting to describe Rapa Nui practices it is worth stressing the dynamic nature of Rapa Nui prehistory. There is not one story to tell before Europeans arrived but at least two, both depicting momentous prehistoric changes as seen through two distinct viewpoints.

The Classical depiction

Neo-traditional scholars believe that the Rapa Nui society suffered a serious restructuring before Europeans’ first arrival. It has been affirmed that a peak of twelve to thirty thousand people (Hunt 2007:498) was reached during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. By 1700s, because of starvation, malnutrition and sterility (amongst other causes), the population would have decreased to six thousand people (Fischer 2005:45). The oral tradition refers to a war between Tangata Hanau Momoko or ‘slender or sharp-pointed people’ and Tangata Hanau Eepe or ‘broad or heavy-set people’. (Englert 1970:88, 93).

After this war, which seems to have exploded at the same time as Europeans were arriving, the population declined to just three thousand people. Scholars have assumed that the auto-destructive Rapa Nui ‘obsession with monumental statuary’ (or ‘ecocide’) led to ecological devastation and the ‘collapse of the ancient moai civilization’ (Hunt 2007:485).

‘The efforts required to achieve such a monumental task of carving, constructing and transporting moai statues ‘eventually led the population to deplete their own natural resources’. In 1979, McCall equally associated the environmental collapse to population increases and rainfall drought caused by the small ice-age phenomenon (McCall 1979:132; 1994:38). Some classical depictions end with the environmental catastrophe leading the Island peoples into a spiral of violence, social tension, food shortages and cultural regression. During the 19th century, Americans whalers and Peruvian slavers closed the tragic epoch with slaughters, the introduction of mortal diseases and unashamed kidnappings.

New interpretations

On Rapa Nui, most of the dense forest of palm trees, 20 other woody trees and shrubs, six species of land birds, innumerable seabirds and native fauna had been lost to extinction by the time Europeans arrived (Hunt 2007:497).

Nevertheless, new evidence suggests a complex ‘synergy of impacts’ might have occurred to explain the pitiful phenomenon. The Polynesian rat (rattus exulans) brought by first Polynesian settlers could have played a major role in Rapa Nui’s deforestation (Hunt 2007:485,494), rather than irrational logging and environmental burning. Unlike widely sustained ‘neo-traditional’ thinking, and supported by new evidence, Hunt (2006–07) argues that a constant population growth occurred since first settlements, and that a slow increase for the next four hundred years followed (1250 AD–1650 AD), reaching the peak around 3000 to 4000 people by about 1350 AD. This growth occurred ‘even as forest resources’ were declining, he argues. The population ‘growth stabilized at a relatively low number’ due to the limited carrying capacity of the island (Hunt 2007:497) which islanders dramatically experienced.

From a biodiversity perspective, an ‘ecological crisis’ certainly occurred. Easter islanders were faced with new environmental conditions which compelled them to adapt to the new habitat. This ‘slow environmental adaptation’ theory becomes plausible given the lack of Rapa Nui customary lore referring to a ‘sudden and dramatic’ end of the ‘moai social order’. How could the people of Rapa Nui forget such an event! As McCall has argued, the only tradition relating to the cessation of the moai carving concerns a ‘magical personage who was angered at not having been given a rightful share of fishing catch. The result of this anger was that the personage (either a priest or an old woman, depending upon the version) caused the moai activity to end’. (McCall 1979: 131 [obtained from Englert 1948; Metraux 1940 and Thomson 1891]).

Based on Hunt’s thinking, I argue that Easter islanders did not struggle for existence but strived for a decent endurance by adapting their inherited social order that had been harshly knocked around, by dramatic environmental change. Paraphrasing Durie, Rapa Nui customs were probably determined by the ‘laws and structures that suited them at the time’. And perhaps, as with Māori, Rapa Nui legal conceptions were ‘values orientated not rules based’ (Durie 1994:1,8) which allowed them to undertake major negotiated changes without significant clashes.

Rather than the classical depiction of conflicting politics through confrontation, conquest and warfare, it is more likely that Easter islanders would have gradually assimilated the environmental metamorphosis by maintaining the economics of cooperation through a continuous process of political adaptation. By keeping the essentials of their inherited customary rules intact, they easily mutated it into new forms of composed public affairs. It has been demonstrated that the Easter islanders’ possessed a marked capacity for adaptation (McCall 1994). As with Māori, the ability of Rapa Nui to ‘change without diminishing cultural integrity’ constituted a customary principle of decision making which was based on pragmatic needs (Durie 1994:9, 56).

Why did the very first ‘discoverers’ of Rapa Nui (Dutch expedition led by Roggeveen) observe a ‘fruitful’ (Fischer 2005:43) island with generous food-production in 1722, and yet fifty-two years later James Cook (third encounter) merely observed desolate scenes of food and water scarcity, with a ‘mild and friendly people anxious to trade’ (Hough 1994)?

Hunt has argued that Rapa Nui social collapse was not the result of ecological disaster but arose from European ‘genocide’ (Hunt 2007:498) during the immediate post-contact era. Fischer (2005:54) has additionally suggested that it was not until European disruption, when the people were confronted with serious social changes, that strife was detonated on Rapa Nui, during eighteen century.

The Dutch expedition undoubtedly inflicted inhuman acts upon the islanders without ‘reason or justification’ evincing the rudeness of ‘men from other lands’ who ‘did not respect the lives of those around them’. When the commander of the expedition came on shore, with about 150 of his men, the islanders immediately gathered in a great crowd on the beach. This certainly was to have been expected, for everyone must have wanted to see the strange people, and the unfamiliar things they wore and carried. Some islander tried in their curiosity to touch the weapons of the visitors. They were fired upon, and many were wounded or killed. (Englert 1970: 139 [from Carl Friedrich Behrens, 1903:134, Another Narrative of Jacob Roggeveen’s Visit]).

The ‘profound shock’ caused by this first encounter suddenly uprooted early political and religious beliefs by disrupting the mana conceptual symbolism. Felled by a musket was a ‘magic’ that none could explain; those lamented would have long filled fireside conversations. No ancestral spirit could be summoned to counter such a force. Yet these tangata hiva —‘men from beyond’— were neither returned spirit nor ‘gods’. They were white men with lethal mana. And Easter islanders were vulnerable in a way they had never been before (Fischer 2005: 53).

According to Englert, the Rapa Nui obsidian weapon or mata’a began to be used ‘shortly before’ Dutch first arrival in 1722, suggesting that the first visits contributed to ‘the development of this atmosphere of violence’ (Englert 1970:138). But I would argue tension rather than violence because Dutch accounts reveal that ‘the islanders carried no weapons of any kind, but rather approached en mass to welcome them’ (Fischer 2005:50).



It appears that Polynesian explorers from South-East or Central Polynesia (Hunt 2008) arrived on the uninhabited island Rapa Nui (McCall 1979:130) on a date which is still controversial. Led by a royal-lineage chief of a ‘smaller kin group’, an ivi, these expert navigators brought provisions to the new island. They also brought their cultural traditions such as ‘language, dress, oral literature, customs, beliefs, social structures and art’ (Fischer 2005:18).

Whether Rapa Nui and Māori peoples were from a common cultural pattern which split through divergent destinies 30 and 26 generations ago respectively is still uncertain. The Rapa Nui genealogies collected by Routledge and Metraux list 30 kings (Hunt and Lippo, 2008: 146) whereas Māori lore counts 26 generations to the last waves of waka arriving to NZ (Durie 1994: 14). This lore is consistent with archaeological re-dates which calculates the Rapa Nui and Māori immigration around 1200 or 1300 AD.

Nonetheless, it is noticeable that Rapa Nui lore preservation of the ariki’s genealogy was for them possibly equally important as in the case of Māori people for whom the whakapapa worldview remains part of the essence of being Māori. Furthermore, both genealogies defined ‘seniority or ariki lines.’ To Māori, whakapapa provides self-identity but also informs mana tupuna ideology where ‘all things came from ancestors; land rights, status, authority, kinship, knowledge and ability’ (Durie 1994:11).

From the beginnings of the settlement, say some scholars, Easter Islanders maintained close links with their faraway homeland. Others affirm that they remained in complete isolation. Fischer argues that a permanent exchange existed with the ‘homeland’ (Gambier Islands), unlike other traditional thinking of Rapa Nui isolation prior to settlement. Hunt’s evidence revives the ‘isolation hypothesis’ (Hunt 2007). In any case, all agree that Rapa Nui developed one of the most sophisticated civilizations ever known.

Curiously, the first Polynesian settlers did not name the island; they only tagged it as kainga (territory) (Fischer 2005:21). Apparently, it was only on board of the Peruvian slave-ships during the 19th century that Easter Islanders, when meeting other Pacific Islanders, ‘acquired for the first time a name for themselves: Rapanui, people of the big island’ (McCall 1994:58). Identically, precontact Māori did not have a name for the New Zealand archipelago as a whole. To Easter Island nevertheless another possibility would be that they called the island Te Pito o Te Henua or “The Navel”; according to Churchill and Thomson, The End of the World (Englert 1970:30; Metraux 1971).

Social groups and Social categories

The descendents of first Polynesian settlers rapidly spread out over the 171 km2 Island by setting up new communities which were mainly coastal. They formed ‘larger kinship groups’ called mata (tribes) (McCall 1979:130) which were led by a tangata honui (Fischer 2005:23; Englert 1970:51). On the other point of the Polynesian triangle, the Māori hapu was the ‘essential political unit for local governance and social intercourse’ which was led and represented by the rangatira who was crucial for the maintenance of self governing units or rangatiratanga.

For Easter Island, however, it is not clear whether the tangata honui were hereditary or appointed by popular choice. Māori rangatira were not graded by class but by ‘the extent of their influence or personal mana’; it was important that they sustain their status by merit and popular support (Durie 1994:16-32).

The ten mata formed (‘tribal regions’ — the actual number is debated) were supervised by a “loose” kingship, the ariki mau, who held limited political power over all the various larger kin-groups. These larger groups enjoyed almost complete independence of action from him (Englert 1970:30). These autonomous units occupied the kainga and, as with Māori, the land was seen as a ‘field of operations’ (Kawharu 1977:45). On Rapa Nui, autonomy was associated with ‘specific land and sea resources’ and were roughly delimitated by pipihoreko or ‘stone cairns’ which defined mata’s boundaries (McCall 1979:125).

Was the establishment of the ten mata (‘tribal regions’) similar to Māori group formation? Apparently it was because over time they spread across the island ‘by atomisation and the reformation of autonomous groups marking an ‘absence of centralised authority’ (Durie 1994:12) which is a characteristic described by Rapa Nui scholars. As mata grew, they ‘divided laterally to form autonomous units of the same people’; in much the same way Māori formed hapu. However, the existence of several sub-tribes or ure / ivi created by lineage has been widely described by scholars as well (McCall 1979:128). Thus, we can only speculate whether mata were subdivided or laterally divided (as Durie’s Māori depiction) or whether they were perhaps laterally divided but internally subdivided through ure or ivi.

Finally, the ‘extended family’ (paenga or ivi) or members grouped by common residence existed on Rapa Nui, as did Māori whanau, described as members living together with ‘emotional commitment’ (Durie 1994:29).

An upper-level of segmentation classified mata depending upon its hanau or sense of belonging. There were two territorial organizations (confederacies or moieties) based on lineage. The reason for this dualism is not clear and apparently had only political dimensions (Metraux 1971:92). The Hotu Iti moiety or lesser mata (mata iti) were roughly distributed along the south-eastern side of the island, and the Tu’u Aro or greater mata (mata nui) were dispersed across the north-western coastline (McCall 1979:127). The Tu’u Aro comprised the royal Miru; Hamea; Marama; Hau Moana; Ra’a; Ngaure and Ngatimo (Fischer 2005:23). The Hotu Iti confederacy (descendent of the youngest son of Hotu Matu’a), the first ariki (Metraux 1971:90) and ‘mythical founder-ancestor’ (Fischer 2005:21)) comprised the Ure o Hei (also Hiti Uira); Tupahotu and; Koro Orongo (Fischer 2005:23).

There are interesting resemblances between hanau and iwi. To Māori Iwi constituted a social category of common descent which provided a ‘wider collectivity to be called upon when required,’ especially to common expeditions. In the same way to Easter islanders the iwi was a sort of ‘confederacy’ which ‘existed at ideological and expeditionary levels’ (Durie 1994:30). The Iwi referred to the ‘original or early cognatic descent groups, a combination of hapu’ (not defined by district boundaries but by hapu alliance (Durie 1994:29). Unlike Rapa Nui hanaus which gradually faded away during the ‘contact’ period, however, the Māori Iwi came to play an even greater role during post European contact.

Functionaries and Classes

By replicating the ‘trinity of Polynesian rank and status’ (Fischer 2005:21) the Rapa Nui colonist initially divided a sui generis hierarchical society into three categories: ariki or nobles; tuhunga or experts and urumanu or commoners; that is, every one who did not belong to the royal family of western tribe of Miru (Englert 2004:45). The rest of this ‘supreme’ linage/clan were ariki paka or ‘nobles’ (Fischer 2005:21). The in between class of tumu ivi ‘atua or priests were probably in charge of ‘the preservation of standard genealogies’ (McCall 1979:125). However, the ariki mau was the island’s highest priest (Fischer 2005:22).

Amongst tuhunga or experts (to Māori, tohunga were specialists in a discipline as well) there were tangata terevaka ‘boat-handlers or fishermen’ (McCall 1979:124); tangata keukeu henua or farmers; maori anga moai and maori anda ahu or stone master carvers ; maori anga hare ‘house builders’, and; maori rongorongo school masters who taught the art of reading and writing on the kohau rongorongo the wooden sculpted tablets (Englert 2004:45). According to Fischer (2005:22) the old Rapa Nui word referring to ‘expert’ or ‘tuhunga’ was replaced by ‘maori’ because of the Tahitian influence during the 1880s.

Kio (tenant farmers during the 18th century) was the name also used to refer to ‘refugees in times of war’ (McCall 1979:26) or defeated enemies condemned ‘to cultivate their master’s lands.’ Their condition ‘was not immutable’ however (Fischer 2005) because they were able to recover their freedom ‘when the victor became tired of his slave as a consequence of his age or some illness’ (Gana in Metraux 1971:90). To Māori, war prisoners were analogously able to regain their freedom too, by intermarriage or other ‘particular acts of courage or contribution to the community’ (Durie 1994:33).

Initially, there was also a “rankless” class of professional warriors within each mata who did not interfere in political affairs. The matato’a from mata — tribe and to’a — warrior, courageous (Fischer 2005:21, 54) only played a significant political role from 1700s onward when they became a sort of Māori rangatira (2005:21). Matato’a were accompanied by guards/policeman or paoa (Englert 2004:45). Similarly to Māori, ‘toa’ or warrior was also ‘applied selectively’ to brave, skilful and strong individuals who were ‘called upon to represent the hapu in arranged combats to settle disputes’ (Durie 1994:32).

Power and social control

The royal family or ariki henua (kings of the land) comprised king, queen and the royal family (Englert 2004:41) who belonged to the Mirutribe. The ariki mau or ‘true ariki’ was the paramount chief (McCall 1979:126; Metraux 1971:64) and a direct descendent of Hotu Matu’a (Fischer 2005:21). The selection of the chief had a ‘strong patrilineal bias (McCall 1979:124) with primogeniture being the crucial criterion. The atariki (first-born son) literally means ‘shadow of the king’ (McCall 1994:36) who succeeded his father when he (the son) got married (Englert 2004:41). This succession coincided with the father’s resignation to the throne which was often delayed until the atariki was old enough (Fischer 2005:22). Comparable to Māori, the Ariki or ‘the few’ ‘were the most senior ranking blood representatives of a hapu or collection of hapu’ by holding descent from the leaders of ‘founding canoes’ (Durie 1994:31).

The ariki mau lived sacredly and was isolated, exercising no political (secular) power (Englert 2004:41; 1970:51). His power was delegated to the tangata honui or mata’s chief. Similarly, the Māori ariki were usually ‘shielded from political affairs’. However, in contrast to apparent early Rapa Nui practices, the Māori ariki ‘were not institutionalised by strict rules of succession’ (Durie 1994:31).

By controlling a supernatural authority on the island, the ariki mau was respected for being a repository of mana. He was expected to provide benefits and protection for everyone: abundance of crops, fertility of land, plenty of fish, birds and turtles. To Māori power was the product of mana, not of institutionalised structures’ (Durie 1994:40). In the case of later Rapa Nui, the matato’a or ‘warlord chiefs’ (McCall 1979:133) were elected by virtue of the physical attributes of a matato’a representative in the Birdman contest.

By early pre-contact times, then, social control was provided by the mana of ariki mau and his tumu ivi ‘atua. However, after the ecological crisis, a new matato’a order emerged which ‘ranged the land and the older way of life, and its social control was lost’ (Fischer 2005:56). By using Durie’s terms, the transformation might be depicted in this way: the conceptual symbolism of early-ascribed ‘ariki mau’ mana is replaced by latter-acquired ‘matato’a’ mana.

The person and residence of the ariki mau was considered tapu. Nobody could even touch the ariki’s body and hair. To Māori people, social control was partially regulated by the laws of tapu; for example, it was believed that some physical and mental illness was the product of a ‘breach of tapu rules’ (Durie 1994:52). To Fischer, the inner connection between mana and tapu in very early Polynesian societies was well-known. The concept of mana maintained Polynesia’s hierarchical authority. However, to sustain it in an uncontaminated state was also needed, besides devising ‘a ritual restrictive complex or tapu’ (Fischer 2005:27).

Thus, mana and tapu were ‘inextricably linked’ and rooted within both customary societies because there were not just rules over persons and things; there was also a philosophy of life enforcing social codes.

The Polynesian zeitgeist of mana and tapu laterally modelled social attitudes by crossing every intellect. Te Pito O Te Henua and Aotearoa seem to have shared this unique Polynesian notion upon which reality was not divided into secular and divine, public and private, or concrete and abstract domains.


The economy of Moai and the logics of cooperation

Around 1200 to 1500 AD a ‘notable expansion’ of communities took place into the water-scarcer inland areas without notable conflict occurring amongst each mata or hanau. Rapa Nui communities developed a complex stone-carving activity, from simple structures to ‘huge stone figures’ or moai. This successful activity reflected an ‘unbroken progression’ which illustrated a peaceful coexistence and ‘highly organised activity’ (Mullroy and Figueroa in McCall 1979:131) within Island society.

No matter how moai statues were transported and erected, a competitive activity between mata took place which required a significant ‘mobilization of human energy and cooperation for its successful implementation’ (Sahlins in McCall 1979:131). Competition, cooperation, trade networks, kinship obligations and even inter-marriage were commonplace on Easter Island, like Aotearoa, in order to sustain links between tribes. The absence of external invasion and internal warfare between mata and hanau respectively explain the exceptional and stunning output, as McCall has argued.

Rapanui megaliths were not built by miserable bands of slave labour, so often the case in the history of humankind, but were the carefully conceived, community-wide projects of people bound only by obligations of trade and kinship. Affection, too, played its parts in the efforts to glorify great fathers, and occasionally mothers, of the past. Because of the exchange of marriage partners between the eastern Hotuiti and the western Tu’uaro, these people held many ancestors in common.’ (McCall 1994: 39)

By benefiting from richer and ‘deep soil cover’, Hotu Iti tribes were expert agriculturalists who supplied the Tu’ Uaro with wood for their boats, vegetables and fruit products. Located in its territories, the Hotu Iti hanau controlled likewise the ‘moai quarry’ (Rano Raraku). On the other hand, the Tu’ Uaro ‘monopolised the sea and its products’ from the north-west part of the island (McCall 1979:131; 1994:33).

According to Durie, one of the ‘conceptual regulators’ of Māori tikanga, that is, the law, was utu. As a behavioural regulator, utu was concerned with ‘the maintenance of harmony and balance by reciprocal obligations which underpinned the essential ‘give and take’ nature of Māori social order (1994:6). A similar mechanism would have operated within Rapa Nui organization. Three hundred years of economic equilibrium existed indeed between matas and hanaus upon which the society was politically organised. To Māori, one of the causes of war ‘included disputes over resources’ (Durie 1994:43). Therefore, a ‘breakdown in exchange arrangements’ would explain Rapa Nui’s restructuring before Europeans arrivals.

Political rearrangements and conflict

The already reported ecological crisis, as Fischer suggests (2005:44), did not lead to ‘cultural collapse’. There is no evidence of significant warfare disturbing the ‘island-wide exchange system’ except an increase of moai’s being knocked down amongst tribes. Several later explorers wrote, during the 18th and 19th centuries, of having seen stand-up statues, reinforcing the idea of notable warfare after the European entrance.

To 1722, the date of ‘discovery’, the monumental statuary activity had been already ‘overcome’ and political adjustments between the northwest and southeast moieties were taking place. By the early 1700s, ariki mau from western-tribes ‘still wielded most, but not all, secular and religious authority.’ Soon afterwards, however, matato’a from the eastern-tribes’ applied intense pressure upon other tribes. But it was not until Roggeveen’s coming that, for whatever reason, the eastern matato’a (though fiercely resisted by western “aristocrat” tribes) fought to seize control of the island. Thereafter, continual conflict persisted from about 1724-5 until after 1750 (Fischer 2005: 44, 54).

Oral traditions refer to the Poie and Kainga war. Local-group fights are also called by the Spanish name, Guerras Intestinas (Englert 2004:99, 141). To Māori, as Durie had stated, internal warfare was the norm which rarely involved large numbers of people. Durie describes precontact Māori hostilities as ‘mainly intestinal’, ie ‘local fighting between and within related descent groups’ (Durie 1994:42).

Instead of the classical Rapa Nui depiction of a mixture between starvation and long-term war, it seems that the Rapa Nui experienced warfare that was short-term. Englert (1970:140) describes many battles between kin-groups mainly of short duration and most of the time the “defeated warriors once caught, were [just] made kio or ‘not immutable slaves’ (Fischer 2005:55).

Rapa Nui in transition

According to McCall, the abandonment of ‘veneration’ for moai activity coincides with the birth of a new social manifestation which also required ‘island-wide-involvement and competition between local groups but on a less-continuous basis’ (McCall 1979:132). This new manifestation was the Birdman Cult or tangata manu contest, which gradually displaced (or replaced it drastically) the moai carving activity ‘represented a weakening of hereditary power in favour of achieved status competition’ (Goldman in McCall 1979:133).

The goal of this annual competition, normally set during the spring, was a race to secure the ‘first sooty tern egg’ (McCall 1979:132). The outcome of the race determined the food distribution and the exercise of political power. The winner of the egg quest, and of the benefits that followed, would be leader of the descent group whose representative procured the first egg.

The tangata manu had the right to ‘hold the ao’ (a three-foot heavy wooden club). The holding of the ao meant that the tangata manu had power over the kin-groups of the island (Englert 1970:148). However, this was largely symbolic because he was sent ‘immediately into isolation for six months in an especially constructed house’ precluding him from exercising any genuine power (McCall 1979:133).

The logics of supremacy and political collapse

By 1863, when the missionaries first arrived, the ‘tangata manu seclusion’ was used to allow kin-group followers to wield de facto power, usually accompanied by ‘destructive raids upon the settlements of their enemies’ (McCall 1979:133) in a ‘brutal and ruthless way’ (Englert 1970:149).

These were vengeful short-term battles characterised by merciless rioting, acts of vengeance against the defeated such as ‘blows with a club’ and slashes and lacerations with obsidian blades, which were described by missionaries as well. According to Father Englert (1970:149) these ‘atrocities’ were committed against defeated enemies or kio, including women and children. He also wrote of the ‘real happiness’ felt by ‘mothers of families’ when ‘these acts of cruelty ceased’ through missionary intervention.

In the Māori post-contact period a similar ‘massive slaughter’ (Durie 1994:49) certainly occurred, though this was contrary to the pre-contact custom law that allowed muru, that is ‘voluntarily acceptance of plundering raids’. Muru rarely involved killing because the purpose of muru was not provide cause for war but to actually prevent it (Durie 1994:44). Was this the case on Easter Island? Did important precontact sanctions for the peaceful resolution of conflict break down, as they did in Māori society? It seems that the narratives collected by missionaries only depict impressions of behaviours that were already contaminated.

Cannibalism was practised for the very first time for two possible reasons: for insulting the vanquished (Fischer 2005:55) and as ‘a delicacy’ amongst people ‘who had available so little mammalian flesh’ (Englert 1970:141). In like manner, Māori practised cannibalism ‘for food as well as for the customary denigration of mana’ (Durie 1994:47).

The emergence of the ‘Birdman cult’ reflected the rapidly changing situation on Rapa Nui where political displacement occurred. Earlier informal and customary organizations were displaced by one that was intensely competitive, headed by tribal professional warriors. According to McCall (1979:133), the annual Orongo ceremony, which was carried on until 1880s, ‘was an [unsuccessful] attempt to mollify the antagonisms between local groups.’ Genealogical evidence suggests likewise, that inter-marriage was still practiced amongst enemy clans in order to preserve peace. Similarly amongst Māori, the process of peacemaking embraced ‘arranged marriages’ (Durie 1994:43) which implies that a long-term war was regarded as unsustainable.


In this paper, I have compared some aspects of Rapa Nui customary law, before European contact, with similar customary mores as discussed by Māori scholar and jurist, E.T. Durie, acknowledging the complexity of this kind of comparative research. Newly available evidence however provides new opportunities for comparative analysis, relating to how these contrasting customary systems might have evolved under different environmental circumstances. An insight into one system provides important insights into the other. Consequently, I have argued that Rapa Nui precontact customary retained the same degree of dynamic flexibility and integrated adaptability that is to be found within Māori custom law, as portrayed and argued by Eddie Durie.


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