The ACRG’s collaborative work with Mike Pitts on Hoa Hakananai’a provides a wonderful instance of how virtual model technologies and nuanced interpretation work in harmony to produce some ground-breaking results. The imagery on Hoa Hakananai’a was always ambiguous (and its meaning more so), but the clarification of detail and realisation of the narrative structure of the composition suddenly makes perfect sense of the statue’s context and role in the ‘birdman’ ceremonies at Orongo – fertility, transformation, the journey of the soul, regeneration, perfect! As is the case with so many elements of Rapa Nui’s past, the ‘mystery’ dissolves once rigorous and properly contextualised research is undertaken.
Hoa Hakananai’a is one of those curious things – an object/person/god house, sometimes animate, sometimes mute, whose status is somewhere between the archaeological and ethnographic. Like the other Rapa Nui moai its apparently silent, ‘megalithic’ aspect creates the illusion of being remote in time and comprehension. I would predict that as firmer chronologies are established for Rapa Nui’s human past we’ll find the ‘birdman cult’ was a post-European contact process – a specifically Polynesian response to changing possibilities brought about by new circumstances and re-engagement with a wider world. It embodies beliefs about the world that are still there in a rather transformed, syncretic way. When next in Hanga Roa take a look at the memorial stones in the cemetery, take a look in the church. It’s a shame in many respects that Hoa Hakananai’a was rudely up-rooted from his/her proper home and transplanted in the BM, but what a great ambassador he/she has become for Rapa Nui culture.