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Another strange cult developed on Easter Island, apparently having nothing to do with the great stone statues, but providing a fascinating look at ancient imagination, just the same.

The Bird-Man cult arose around 1500 A.D. Each September clans gathered at the ceremonial village of Orongo, high on the cliffs by the crater of Rano Kau. There they awaited the return of the sooty terns, which nested on a tiny motu or island, off the shore.The most athletic representative of each clan was chosen to participate; the idea was to be the first to descend the cliff, swim through shark-infested waters to the motu, and return bringing the first egg laid by returning terns.

The chief of the clan whose representative brought back the first unbroken egg was proclaimed the Bird-Man, and became the most powerful figure on the island for the next year.

Stone houses built to accommodate the chiefs as they waited for the process to be played out still perch on the hill at Orongo. And carved into the surrounding lava rocks are Bird-Man figures. Archaeologists think one figure was carved for each yearly ceremony and have found a total of 132.

Part of the ritual also involved the changing of prayers from figures inscribed on wooden tablets. The writing is called Rongo-Rongo, and many examples of the tablets exist. But so far a Rosetta Stone has not been found to crack the code and explain what the strange figures mean.