Tapu Rapa Nui, the concept of the sacred and forbidden on Easter Island

Tapu Rapa Nui Detail of a mural in the Lorenzo Baeza Vega school in Hanga Roa on Easter Island
Detail of a mural in the Lorenzo Baeza Vega school in Hanga Roa on Easter Island

Tapu is an ancestral Rapa Nui concept that was formerly used to establish sacred prohibitions that regulated the customs of the community and that still survives in certain details of the daily life of the inhabitants of Easter Island.


What is tapu?

Tapu Rapa Nui James Cook's HMS Endeavor Sailing to Tahiti | Image: Gordon Miller
James Cook’s HMS Endeavor Sailing to Tahiti | Image: Gordon Miller

Tapu is an ancestral concept that defines everything that is both sacred and forbidden for a society. Tapu establishes a set of strict moral rules and prohibitions that regulate behaviour among members of a community.

The notion of tapu is not unique to Rapa Nui, but is an idea shared by most Polynesian peoples. In fact, the word taboo comes from the Polynesian word tapu, the meaning of which became known in the West thanks to Captain James Cook‘s voyages to the South Pacific islands.

The aim of this catalogue of unwritten laws, dictated by the ruling classes, was to impose order and discipline on the population both in their daily lives and in their relationship with the divine.

Tapu in Rapa Nui

Sunset view of the ahu Riata located in Hanga Piko
Sunset view of the ahu Riata located in Hanga Piko

Tapu was directly associated with mana, the expression of supernatural power. This divine energy, exerted through kings and priests, affected people, animals and things, and was therefore susceptible to becoming tapu.

The fear of tapu and the care to obey them were very present among the ancient inhabitants. Not in vain, on many occasions, the violation of an important tapu was a grievance that could only be avenged by death. In the case of minor infractions, the consequences could be severe stomach aches or foot pains, caused mainly by a strong sense of guilt.

When the first missionaries arrived on Easter Island in the late 19th century, tapu was the only religious belief that remained deeply rooted among the islanders after the slave raids that took place in 1862. However, Catholic priests succeeded in discrediting the power of many tapu by demonstrating to the natives that their great fears had no rational basis.


Ancient tapus on Easter Island

A large number of tapus governed the lives of the ancient inhabitants of Easter Island from birth to death. Most of them may seem to us mere superstitions from today’s point of view, but all of them had a reason for being in the primitive worldview of the Rapa Nui people. Let us look at some historical tapus collected by scholars such as Katherine Routledge, Alfred Metrux and Sebastian Englert.

Tapus in childhood

Tapu Rapa Nui Sculpture of Ava Rei Pu'a connected to her son by the umbilical cord in Anakena
Sculpture of Ava Rei Pu’a connected to her son by the umbilical cord in Anakena

During a woman’s pregnancy, it was forbidden to step over her legs if she was sitting on the ground. In the third or fifth month of pregnancy, but never in the fourth or after the fifth month, the husband’s father would offer an umu or curanto cooked underground to the parents of the mother-to-be. After the food was removed, the hole was filled with earth so that no rat could enter it, because it was believed that if a rat took any leftover food, the child would die.

When the child was born and the umbilical cord was cut, it was traditionally buried under a stone. The earth that hid the umbilical cords was tapu, and if someone stepped on it or walked on it, their legs would be covered with white spots or they could suffer foot pains.

Children’s heads were considered sacred and generally could not be touched. For example, any food that touched a child’s head had to be thrown away. When a child was old enough to marry, his or her head was no longer tapu.

When children were given their first tattoo on their legs from the age of 8, they received a gift in the form of chickens. But these animals were tapu and could not be eaten by the child’s family, but had to be exchanged or given to another family.


Tapus of the ariki mau

Tapu of the Ariki Mau Mural representing an Ariki Mau in Hanga Roa
Mural representing an Ariki Mau in Hanga Roa

The ariki mau or king of Easter Island, a member of the powerful Miru tribe, was descended from the gods Tangaroa and Rongo and was considered sacred. This paramount chief was the bearer of mana, a divine power, and was therefore surrounded by tapus.

No one could touch any part of the king’s body without risking death or severe pain. The king’s head was his most sacred part, and his hair could never be cut.

The king’s hands were also tapu. The only “work” he could do was making lines and nets and fishing in canoes. The mana that surrounded him permeated all his belongings, so that his body, his clothes, his dwelling and everything he wore was tapu to anyone else.

No one was allowed to see the king or his son eat or sleep, only his servants who were nobles (ariki) were allowed to enter his house. They worked the land, fished and cooked for the king, and assisted him in all his needs. The king’s food was tapu and only his servants were allowed to touch it.

The ariki mau had, in turn, several forbidden foods. For example, he was not allowed to eat rats. And he could only eat certain fish, including tuna (kahi), even during the months when there was fishing tapu, the prohibition of which did not affect the island aristocracy. Similarly, only the king could begin harvesting the crops that were tapu, until he ordered it.

As we see, all these restrictions were aimed at maintaining the king’s privileges and preventing any attack on his person or benefit of his property by others. We cannot judge him; anyone in his place would prefer a good tuna ceviche to a rat.


Tapus of the tangata manu or bird man

Recreation of the birdman during the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival Easter Island
Recreation of the birdman during the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival

The winner of the ritual that took place in Orongo every spring was called tangata manu or birdman. The different clans of the island competed to get the first egg of the manutara that nested on Motu Nui islet in front of the Rano Kau volcano. The winning clan had the right to rule the island for one year.

Lee más sobre la ceremonia del Tangata Manu

However, the birdman had to pay a high price for his new title and comply with a series of rigid tapus. He would move to live for a year in a house in Orohie, on the slopes of the Rano Raraku volcano, and spend the first five months in strict tapu.

The birdman could not leave the house, slept all day and could not wash himself or cut his hair or nails. His wife and children were allowed to live nearby but could not enter the house to see him or him to see them on pain of death. The house was divided in two, and in the other part resided an “ivi atua” or priest who cooked for him, although they did not share his food. It seems that the tangata manu‘s hand with which he had picked up the egg was so sacred that he could not use it for eating.

It is strange that the representative of the victorious clan was forced into such a meagre existence for a whole year, while the other members enjoyed the sweetness of success.

Fishing tapu

Fishing boats in the port of Hanga Roa Otai
Fishing boats in the port of Hanga Roa Otai

The tangata manu ritual was related to the idea of abundance and fertility. In fact, the arrival of the manutara bird on Rapa Nui inaugurated the deep-sea fishing season, as until then all fish living more than twenty fathoms from the coast were considered poisonous.

Marine resources were controlled by the Miru clan to which the king belonged, through tapus or fishing bans in the winter months. These restrictions, which could be considered appropriate for the regeneration of the fishing grounds, only affected the lower classes. During these periods, the ariki mau continued to fish and distribute the most prestigious catches to the nobles of his tribe, especially the prized tuna or kahi .

Sebastian Englert recounts that when a young man was going out for the first time to fish for tuna, his mother would prepare him a special curanto called “umu takapu“. Only the young fisherman could approach when the umu opened. If others approached before, they would “steal” the first steam from the curanto when it opened and it meant bad luck for the honoree.

Tapu at funerals

Image of the current Hanga Roa cemetery located in Tahai
Image of the current Hanga Roa cemetery located in Tahai

In ancient times, corpses were wrapped in reed mats (tapa) and displayed in the ahu on wooden structures or on stones until they dried out. While the body was exposed near the ahu, the surrounding land was sacred and was under the so-called “te tapu te pera“. Fishing was not allowed on the nearby shore and it was forbidden to build a fire or cook within its boundaries.

The relatives of the deceased invited the rest of the family and acquaintances to a special curanto called “umu papaku“. However, the family around the deceased could not eat it, but prepared another curanto exclusively for them called “umu takapu“. This rule was very strict and transgressing it was considered a horrible act that would bring bad fortune to whoever broke this tapu.


Tapu places

Engraving based on drawing by William Hodges showing a skeleton
Engraving based on drawing by William Hodges showing a skeleton

Certain places on the island were considered tapu, including the area in front of the ahu and the moai statues themselves representing the ancestors, a custom that has remained to this day.

The Motu Nui islet in front of Rano Kau was also tapu and was not allowed to be landed on except in July, August and September.

The words “tapu te pera” and “rahui” refer to the prohibitions exercised by the chiefs or important landowners over certain land. Thus, they reserved the right of way, the right to fish or the products of the land and the sea. For example, all crops were under the royal tapu until the first fruits were offered to the ariki mau, who gave permission for the harvest to begin.

To demarcate the land with tapu, certain signs or milestones were used. Sometimes branches were used, but the most common ones were called “pipi horeko“, made of a small pile of stones stacked one on top of the other in the shape of a pyramid.

These stone mounds, the upper stones of which were painted white and sometimes up to 2 metres high, were considered burial sites or mausoleums by the first European visitors. However, these small burial mounds indicated several types of tapu on the land they marked out, and not only those of a funerary nature.


Tapu today

View of the Ahu Tongariki
View of the Ahu Tongariki

One might think that in the 21st century, the concept of tapu is no longer present on Easter Island. However, the ancestral idea of the sacred and the forbidden still survives in certain details of Rapa Nui’s daily life.

The fishing tapus are still applied in the form of a ban on some marine species such as lobster. In this way, they are protected from extinction and their continuity is ensured in the coastal areas where they thrive.

As for terrestrial fauna, chickens and horses seem to be sacred to the Rapa Nui. The former prowl around houses and tourist accommodation to the surprise of travellers. And the equines, which have reproduced massively since their introduction by the missionaries, are the real masters of the island, as they roam freely in every area, including the archaeological sites.

The ahu or ceremonial platforms have regained their sacred essence for the modern Rapa Nui, after their ancestors stopped paying them the respect and attention they deserved during the decline of the moai cult.

Personal relationships

Most of today’s ethnic Rapa Nui are from the few families that survived the terrible events of the late 19th century. Slave raids and epidemics decimated a population of several thousand to barely a hundred.

Now, their descendants share a few repeated surnames and it is said that, on the island, they are all family. Hence the tapu of incest. Pairing with a possible distant cousin who shares the same blood is taboo. For this reason, many Rapa Nui join with couples from mainland Chile or abroad to avoid the effects of inbreeding.


Tapu during the Covid-19 pandemic

Nani Tuki Pont protagonist of the documentary Tapu
Nani Tuki Pont protagonist of the documentary Tapu

Faced with the arrival of the Covid-19 virus on Easter Island in March 2020, the Municipality of Rapa Nui proposed to recover the concept of tapu as a sacred order and absolute obedience to laws and norms.

The advance of the pandemic in the world and the island’s fragility in the face of it, due to its scarce sanitary means and extreme isolation, forced the authorities to dictate the tapu.

An official tapu closed Rapa Nui to tourism, its main source of income, in order to protect its inhabitants from the coronavirus. A tapu based on the respect of quarantines, the obligatory use of masks and the monitoring of hygiene habits.

These measures, together with “umanga”, another ancestral concept that evokes collaboration and mutual solidarity, have enabled the islanders to overcome extremely difficult conditions.

In October 2021, the documentary “Tapu” was released, which tells the story of life without Covid-19 on Rapa Nui since the island was closed. The protagonists are Nani Tuki Pont and Pio Haoa Riroroko, queen and king of the Tapati 2021 Festival, a young farming couple and parents of a newborn child, whom they named Tapu, in memory of an unusual time.

Rapa Nui National Park Tapus

Warning sign to visitors to the National Park
Warning sign to visitors to the National Park

In order to preserve the cultural heritage of Easter Island, and especially of Rapa Nui National Park, all visitors must respect a few simple rules:

• Take care of the ceremonial platforms (ahu), statues (moai), petroglyphs and archaeological structures. Do not climb or walk on them or damage them. Do not pick up archaeological objects or stones.

• Whoever causes damage or alterations to archaeological sites is liable to imprisonment and fines, according to Law 17,288 of National Monuments.

• Transit only on marked trails and paths. Do not enter environmental recovery zones or other restricted areas.

• All visitors must pay the entrance fee to the National Park in the designated places, thus collaborating in the maintenance and improvement of the sites.

• Camping is not allowed inside the National Park. Only in authorised campsites.

• Be responsible for your safety and respect the signs and indications at the archaeological sites.

• Take your rubbish back to Hanga Roa and deposit it in the appropriate bins.

Failure to comply with any of these rules is subject to heavy penalties. Park rangers carry cameras with them and the fines that apply are quite high, so it is important to be vigilant and careful.