Easter Island caves
The well-deserved fame of the gigantic statues has long eclipsed another of the great natural and historical attractions of Easter Island. We are talking about their caves.
Under ground there are places that surprise by its attractiveness and history. Discovering the caves system of Easter Island allows you to admire the geological and cultural heritage of Rapa Nui from a different perspective.
A unique underground world in the world
Although moai statues, rock art and other archaeological remains have always been the great attractions of Easter Island for scientists, the cave system of the island has recently attracted the attention of various groups of researchers. American, Polish and Spanish, among others, have done recent studies in the caverns to map, photograph and better understand the geological and human past of Rapa Nui.
In spite of the limited surface of the island, of only 165 square kilometers, underground galleries have been found that total more than 7 km in length, which form the largest system of volcanic caves in all Chile and one of the largest in the world.
In this renewed interest in the caves, the work of Lázaro Pakarati and his family stands out. For years, this rapanui family dedicates much of their free time to make an inventory of all the caves they encounter. They have cataloged more than 800 but they believe that there are more than a thousand. This detailed record will be fundamental for the study and conservation of this important underground heritage.
Geological origin of the caves
The successive volcanic eruptions that took place on the island thousands of years ago were the origin of an intricate system of caves. The temperature difference between the outer and inner layers of the lava flows that advanced through the surface and the large bubbles of emitted gases caused the formation of large cavities and long corridors in the form of tubes.
The large number of caves has turned the island’s subsoil into a giant Swiss cheese filled with holes. Due to the great porosity of the terrain, the rainwater is not trapped on the surface and filtered into the interior, forming large underground deposits. This is one of the causes of the aridity and the scarce vegetation prevailing in a great part of the island.
Types of caves in Easter Island
The word Ana, is the generic term that is used in Rapanui language to designate a cave. However, several types are distinguished according to their geological formation and the use that the ancients gave them.
There are surface caves, with wide openings, which in many cases are eaves or protrusions of rock more than real caves. The smaller ones are known by the name of Karava, and were used as temporary shelter, especially by fishermen, since most of them are located on the coast. Examples of this type can be seen in Ahu Akahanga and on the cliff of the hidden beach of Ovahe.
There are also larger and more spacious caves such as the one of Ana O Tai located in Ahu Tahai or Ana Havea in Hotu Iti very close to the Ahu Tongariki, which served as housing as shown by the umu pae (stone kilns) and the memory of the legends and oral traditions.
In the area of Roiho, there is a large system of connected caverns, where Ana Te Pahu stands out. Here the fragile roof collapsed at some points due to erosion, which allowed sunlight and rain to enter, creating manavai, natural nurseries. This circumstance was used to plant diverse crops that served as food to its former residents.
Another kind of cave is Ana Kionga. This is the name given to the caves of refuge, which were used to hide during periods of war. They are also believed to have served as cells for the prisoners of the enemy camp. This type of caves were modified by man adding stone walls to fortify the entrance and to hinder the access of the adversary.
Some of them were in almost inaccessible places like the cliffs of the Rano Kau or the Poike, and others more accessible were very camouflaged and allow to be closed the small openings from inside, being able to pass unnoticed for its persecutors.
In this type of caves, the opening is a simple hole in the ground, as in Ana Kakenga, in which scarcely fits a person, and very often it is necessary to squat and even crawl to move inward.
History, legends and family secrets
The islanders’ relationship with the caves goes back to the first known moment of their history. According to tradition, when King Hotu Matu’a disembarks on Anakena beach after a long journey, he chooses a nearby cave as his first temporary lodging.
Read more about Anakena beach
Over time caves served occasionally as housing, as a natural greenhouse where to grow plants and reservoir to collect rainwater. Later they were used as a refuge to hide from potential threats, whether these were from rival tribes or curious European sailors who arrived from the 18th century.
Places where life and death meet
They were also used as classrooms where knowledge and fishing techniques were taught, or as sanctuaries and healing places. In many cases it has been the chosen place to give birth. Even today people who were born in a cave are still alive and are very proud of it. Current inhabitants still use them as a refuge on their field trips on weekends, to enjoy a picnic, to protect themselves from rain or sun and even for occasional romantic encounters.
Finally, caves were also used as a burial site. Human remains have been found in many of them accompanied by utensils that belonged to the deceased. The caves used as tombs are scattered all over the island, even bones have been found on the small islet of Motu Nui, in front of Rano Kau, so linked to the Tanga Manu ceremony.
In Easter Island there is a belief that the spirits of the ancestors, called aku aku or varua, inhabit the interior of the caves. For the islanders, it is not right to enter a cave without asking permission from the spirits, since there is a risk of attracting bad luck or that a misfortune occurs. For this reason there was the custom of performing a umu tahu or ceremonial curanto as an offering to the ancestors.
Legends and hidden treasures
Some of the caves of Easter Island were the scenenarium from where myths and legends arose like the one that gave rise to the mangai or rapanui fishhook, made of human bone; or the one of Ana o Keke, the cave of the virgins, where the young girls were kept to whiten their skin; or the one of Ana Kai Tangata related to the old cult of Tangata Manu or bird-man, but also with possible cases of cannibalism.
For Rapanui people, caves are part of their heritage. Many families had (and still have) caves of their own. Some were secret and hid valuable objects. In these cases only one important member of the family knew the exact location of the hideout. But the islanders were so reserved that only on the deathbed they trusted their position to their heir. However, due to the few indications and the difficulty of finding them, many were lost in oblivion along with their treasures.
Both Katherine Routledge and Thor Heyerdahl tell in their writings their anxious search for these secret chambers with the help of the islanders. They were obsessed with finding valuable material, especially the unique and elusive Rongo Rongo tablets.
Read more about Rongo Rongo tablets
But unfortunately in most cases, their searches were unsuccessful. Much of famous book Aku Aku by Thor Heyerdahl chronicles the adventures, emotions and disappointments of the author in the search for the caves and their treasures.
So far the only treasures found are objects buried a few centimeters deep, such as fishing-related tools such as fishhooks or mangai, stone hoes (toki), obsidian flakes, spearheads, bone needles, mollusc remains, and animal bones.
Caves have also been discovered with interesting samples of rock art. Paintings and petroglyphs representing the god Make Make and Tangata Manu figures are the most repeated motifs along with others related to fertility. At the moment interesting vestiges for the archaeologists, waiting that, perhaps in the future, new surprises appear.
Tips for visiting the caves
To fully enjoy the visit to the caves, visitors should go minimally prepared. It is necessary to carry a flashlight or better yet a front light (placed on the head) to leave the hands free in case of having to hold on. It is also advisable to wear sport shoes with a thick sole, as the soil may be slippery due to moisture and water leaks.
Some caves are not suitable for people who suffer from claustrophobia since in many cases there are very narrow and burdensome ducts. Likewise, most are not recommended for very elderly or disabled people, due to the instability of the terrain and the difficulty of access
Better in company
Nobody should enter a cave alone, always accompanied, because in case of an accident you can ask for help. The capricious shapes of the tunnels and the secondary galleries that emerge from them, turn some caves into real labyrinths, making it relatively easy to get lost. There have been cases where visitors and even islanders never returned from their excursion.
Although not usually visited by tourists, as a precaution for some visitor with adventurous spirit, it should be noted that the caves lodged in the cliffs of the coast are quite dangerous because of their difficulty of access and the gusts of wind that can cause a fall of several hundred meters.
The visit to the caves of the Roiho sector can only be done walking or cycling. Motor vehicles are prohibited due to the poor condition of the road and the low thickness of the ground that could collapse with the weight of the vehicle.
Most important caves
It is one of the most interesting and accessible caves on the island. It is located in the southern part of Hanga Roa, passing the airport runway along the coast route, just beyond the Iorana Hotel. Read more »
In the case of Ana Kakenga, the lava flowed to the sea and went out trough two mouths or “windows” that give directly to the cliff, reason why also is known like “cave of the two windows”. The views are spectaculars. Read more »
On the north coast road that runs from Ahu Te Peu to Hanga Roa, there is a small sea side detour, signposted with a National Park sign and leading to this small cave. Read more »
The volcanic eruptions that gave rise to Easter Island, created lava channels that extend throughout the island. Ana Te Pahu is a channel that runs along 7 km, located in the foothills of Maunga Terevaka. Read more »