Ana Hue Neru

The Caverns to whiten the YoungLas Cavernas para blanquear a Jóvenes

As far back as the late 19th Century, various expeditions have attempted to unravel the mysteries of the Rapanui culture through archaeological research and the oral traditions of the Islanders. However, whatever knowledge that has been gathered to date has not been very conclusive. This is especially true for the rites known as “whitening” of selected young people in the famous ritual caves of Ana Hue Neru. The most important of those caves is the one called Ana O Keke, the “Cave of the Virgins”, which housed young maidens who had been chosen for the rituals of initiation and for other cultural events such as the Tangata Manu (Bird-Man). Stories tell that the Neru, the chosen girls, lived in leisure and let their nails grow to extreme lengths. At the British Museum in London, there is an ancient wooden Rapanui sculpture of a hand showing that old custom. Older women or priests took care of the girls and taught them songs, dances, string games of Kai-kai and the Patautau poetry, as well as preparing them for adulthood. There is also a second cave, Ana More Mata Puku, in which – according to Father Sebastian Englert – young men were secluded from the age of 7 to prepare them for adult life. According to Uka Tepano Kaituoe (2015), the boys were taught combat exercises along with the reading and writing of the Rongo rongo script.
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Both caves are found on the northeastern cliffs of the Poike peninsula, geologically the oldest part of Easter Island. Today, Poike is a grassland that appears brown and dry with four small copses and severe erosion on the southern and eastern surfaces, all of which is very different from the way it looked in the period when the first settlers arrived. Soil samples and pollen analyses have led scientists to believe that there was once an exuberant forest of palm trees (Bork 2006). According to folklore, the people at that time were divided into two physical groups: the Hanau E’epe, or Long-Ears, who were the dominant class, and the Hanau Momoko, the Short-Ears, who were the workers and subordinate class. It is said that the Long-Ears were those who projected the massive stone statues and forced the subordinates to do the actual work of construction.

Both caves, Ana O Keke and Ana More Mata Puku, are found close to each other on the northeastern cliff of Poike, which falls precipitously more than 100 meters (330 feet) into the ocean. On the upper edge, on a steep slope covered with grass, is Ana O Keke, a volcanic tube more than 440 meters (1440 feet) long (Gautier &Carlier, 1987). The lave originally flowed through this tunnel from the cone on the peak of Poike, called Puakatiki (elevation 370 meters: 1214 feet) toward the north coast, descending approximately 30 to 40 meters (98 to 131 feet). The entrance is only 20 meters (65 feet) below the edge of the drop-off. Inside the cave, there are parts that form a perfect vault and where remains of Huki, a tool used by the Islanders to cut stone and make way through the rocks, can still be found. Its width varies from 1.8 to over 2 meters (6 to 6.5 feet ) but the height is extremely variable. There are sections of the tunnel only 30 centimeters (12 inches) high while others are 1.8 meters (6 feet). Throughout the length of the cave, there is a constant filtration of water and some places in the interior hold lagoons of fresh water. The low entrance of only 70 centimeters (28 inches) requires that the visitor go in crawling, but just 2 meters (6.5 feet) along, the tunnel opens to 1.3 meters (4 feet) high and 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) wide. The natural light that filters in illuminates a panel that is about 5 meters (16 feet) long and 1.2 meters (4 feet) high, containing some unique petroglyphs that are not found anywhere else on the Island and are assumed to allude to the rituals that were held in the cave. Near Ana O Keke, there is a large eroded gully called Te Tiamo, where you can find Riare, a white paste for painting faces, and red Kiea, an earthen pigment which was used for body painting. These pigments can be mixed with vegetable juices and stored in damp balls in Ipu, dried gourds which hung from the roof of the cave.

At the base of the same cliff, just 10 meters (33 feet) above the sea, in a sector called Vai Mahati, is Ana More Mata Puku, the cave of the young men. It is much smaller – only 7.5 meters (25 feet) deep, 3.5 meters (11 feet) wide and with a maximum height of 1.4 meters (5 feet). It also holds some petroglyphs which the Spanish caver Lloret i Prieto (1996) interpreted as a rough drawing of a three-masted ship.

According to Island folklore as related by Juan Tepano to Metraux (1971), “for this cult, there was not only Ana Hue Neru, but also the Casas-Koro, some houses specially built to house young people of both sexes who would spend their time practicing various games and dances without ever going outside.” Father Englert (1948) noted a sadder, more monotonous version: “selected when only sweet infants, the loveliest of both sexes were chosen to be Poki huru hare or Repa huru hare, which meant ‘children destined to stay indoors’. They were not permitted to go outside to play or run in the fresh air, so that their bodies would not lose their white color. If they wanted to go out, they had to stay within a narrow area that was marked off by stones where there was no sun.”

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For millennia, pale skin has been a status symbol in India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia. Only those who are sufficiently wealthy to have servants can give themselves the luxury of staying indoors, protected from the sun, while the poor people have to toil under the sun in the rice fields. White skin is seen as noble and aristocratic. The ruling elite in most of Polynesia inherited this custom and kept their daughters out of the sun.

It is uncertain when exactly the custom of Neru came to an end. Englert wrote (1948): “The last woman who was known to have been a Neru in her childhood was the paternal grandmother of the Pakarati family, Te Oho a Neru, who died very old in 1927. She had married before 1850, so this practice must have ceased to exist by then.”

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