Ana o Keke, the cave of the virgins
One of the most famous, mythical and least visited places of the Poike volcano is the Ana o Keke cave. This cavern, with a hidden location, is also known as the cave of the virgins since in the past some young girls were confined inside to protect their purity and maintain the whiteness of their skin.
A whiter shade of pale
In recent decades the fashion of tanning or “getting brown” has been imposed in the western world as a new beauty canon. Men and, to a greater extent, women invest time and money to achieve a perfect tan.
However, this has not always been the case. You just have to remember that since medieval times the “snowy skin and ivory neck” of European ladies was praised. And if we look in other parts of the world, as in Asia, women are still obsessed with getting as white a complexion as possible and for this they do not hesitate to use creams, umbrellas and clothes that protect them from the sun.
In addition to a beauty feature, having clear and as white skin as possible has always been considered an important status symbol. After all, the upper class people did not have to be from “sun to sun” like the workers or peasants to perform their tasks, but instead remained under cover.
Poki huru hare, the high price of beauty
The ancient natives of Rapa Nui also valued and favored the whiteness of the skin. It was a pride for parents to have white children. According to tradition, the most beautiful children were selected to be “poki huru hare”, that is, children destined to stay at home.
They were “locked up” in large Koro houses where they stayed almost all day. Only parents could bring them food and they hardly went out to play with other children and breathe some fresh air. It could be said that their beauty condemned them to a childhood of seclusion and boredom.
Ana Hue Neru, a place of initiation
In addition to “keeping” young people in houses, they were also hidden in caves. It is not known if the use of caves was part of the practice of “poki huru hare” or was a social or religious rite by itself.
The caves used to guard the boys and maidens were known as Ana Hue Neru, which means caves where virgins gather (neru in the Rapa Nui language).
The details of this ancient ritual are not really known. It seems that a small group of young pubertals were chosen, who were held in these caves, with the main purpose of bleaching their skin and thus preserving their purity.
Some scholars think that these rituals were related to the ceremony of the bird-man or Tangata Manu that was celebrated in Orongo. Perhaps, the young women remained isolated for months, keeping their celibacy and chastity, while waiting for the marriage with the winner of the competition or with some young man belonging to a ruling clan.
Others think that the word neru does not have the connotation of a virgin, from a sexual point of view, but rather that it indicates purity. Virginity was not an issue as relevant as fertility in the beliefs of the people of Polynesia. In fact, it is believed that perhaps the young women were instructed by older women in acts of sexual initiation and love art.
What is certain is that the poor teenagers would get bored mortally. To fight against tedium, it seems that they combed their hair, left their nails very long, adorned themselves with natural pigments (kie’a), sang and played Kai Kai where they formed figures with threads. In addition, with hardly any space to move and poorly fed, surely many young people got sick and some died.
It is not known when it started and how this custom ended. According to Father Sebastian Englert, the last neru was a woman who married in 1850, so it seems that the ritual ceased to be practiced even before the arrival of the first missionaries in the mid-19th century.
Two of the Ana Hue Neru caves used for the neru rituals are located on the northern cliff of the Poike volcano. One is the famous Ana o Keke, intended for girls and the other is the little known Ana More Mata Puku, located a short distance away, which was intended for boys.
Ana o Keke, a difficult and sinuous cave
Due to its remote and hidden location, it is not surprising that the Ana o Keke cave was only known to the islanders until recent times. The first European who visited it was Father Sebastian Englert. In 1955 he showed it to explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who described it with emotion in his famous book Aku Aku, making it known to the rest of the world. Since then, several expeditions of Spanish, Polish and German speleologists have visited the cave and have conducted more thorough studies.
The name of Ana o Keke has been translated as “the cave of inclination of the sun“. This meaning could refer to the fall of the sun in the afternoon, and to the fact that at some time the sun’s rays would not penetrate the cave and therefore its occupants would be “safe” from the light.
Ana o Keke, like most of the island’s caves, was formed when thousands of years ago the lava flowed from Pua Katiki, the main crater of the Poike, towards the coast forming a tube when it cooled. Currently the cave has a length of about 400 meters long, a width of about 2 meters and a variable height that in some sections reaches 1.8 m but in others does not exceed 30 cm, forcing to crawl to advance through it.
In the cave there is a lot of humidity, because there is a constant filtration of water that causes puddles and small lagoons. These accumulations of liquid, which have occasionally prevented some explorations, were vital for young neru to be able to stock up on drinking water.
The cave, which has an ascending path, ends in a small vaulted chamber about 2 m high and 2 m wide. Here an ax and an obisidian chisel (toki) and marks of these tools were found on the ceiling and walls. It seems that the ancient Rapanui people tried to connect the cave with the outer surface, but surely the lack of light, oxygen and the difficulty of the task made them give up.
Unlike in other caves, there have been hardly found any useful or human remains in Ana or Keke, except for a couple of teeth. It is possible that the intense interior humidity has favored the decomposition of bones and any other organic matter. The most interesting remains that are still preserved are some strange petroglyphs located at the entrance of the cave.
The petroglyphs of Ana o Keke
The main point of interest of Ana o Keke is in the right wall of the entrance to the cave. It is a series of strange petroglyphs or rock engravings that occupy a space of just over 4 meters long by 1 meter wide.
What most attracts the attention of Ana o Keke’s engraved strokes is that they have not been found anywhere else on the island. And likewise, it is surprising that the most common symbols that are repeated in the thousands of petroglyphs distributed by Rapa Nui, are also not found in the cave of the virgins. Thus, for example, the Make Make mask does not appear, nor the Tangata Manu or the symbol komari (female vulva), all of them associated with the cult of the bird man.
Also in Ana or Keke, it seems that the symbols are not arranged randomly as in other places, but according to some experts think they describe a particular story or event. Father Sebastian Englert and more recently Hartwig-E. Steiner dedicated themselves to transcribe the signs to facilitate their study and a possible interpretation.
Among the symbols found in Ana o Keke, more or less realistic figures appear that seem to represent plants, fish, birds, a whale, a canoe, a rei miro (pectoral ornament) and a toki (carving tool). But a strange form highlights specially. It is a figure of what seems to be half body of a disturbing being with a diamond-shaped head, large ears and arms raised showing curved fingers or claws.
Several geometric symbols such as a cross, an ellipse and several series of dotted lines are also shown. Some theories believe that these points could form a kind of calendar that indicates the phases of confinement of the neru or the different positions of the sun throughout the year.
In another section, there are some signs that some relate to spermatozoons and an engraving that resembles a uterus with the tubes included. Considering that the neru ritual was associated with fertility, this interpretation would not be far-fetched if we forget, of course, that there were no microscopes or enough anatomical knowledge to reflect these details in ancient times.
Ana o Keke, a source of inspiration
The location, mystery and mysticism of the Ana o Keke cave and the possible rituals associated with it have awakened the imagination of writers, musicians and artists. Travelers and scholars of the island compiled the lyrics of several old songs that refer to the cave and the neru. We transcribe two of them.
Song recorded by Alfonse Metraux
Tautau ipu kiea o nga neru.
Tuai era ka huru koe, neru e.
A te manava he mate,
Ka huru koe, neru e,
Ka huru kataia ritorito.
Hanging is the pumpkin with ocher red from the neru.
You have been held for a long time, Oh neru.
I’m in love,
You are isolated, oh neru,
By being isolated, you have turned white.
Song recorded by Sebastian Englert
Ka huru, ka hakarito koe, [e] neru e,
I te ana tautau ipu ki‘ea
O te nga neru tuai;
Koro hora, ka ea ki runga,
I te tonga, ka topa ki raro,
Ka huru, ka ritorito koe, e neru e!
Remain (in the cave) to whiten your skin, oh neru,
In the cave where the pumpkins hang with ki‘ea,
Of the old neru;
In summer you can climb,
In winter you should go down,
Remain (in the cave) to have white skin, oh neru
The cave has also inspired foreign musicians who, after visiting Easter Island, have been captivated by its history and its legends. The musician Enrique Plazaola composed a song called “Ana o Keke”. Listen to it here.
A movie story
The story of the maids confined to whiten their skin could not be missing in the Hollywood production that so influenced the recent history of the island. In the Rapa Nui movie, produced by Kevin Kostner in 1994, there is a scene in which the neru ritual is recreated.
In the film, the protagonist, played by Sandrine Holt, is descended with the help of a log structure to the entrance of the cave. Before being confined, she turns to observe the sunset on the horizon for the last time. Afterwards she will not be able to go out until after several weeks, during which she receives the night visits of her lover, Jason Scott Lee.
The location of the scene shown in the film is not correct. As it can be seen on the screen, it was filmed at the other end of the island, on the cliffs of the Rano Kau volcano, specifically in the Mata Ngarau area. We assume that they chose that place because it was more scenographic and above all because it was easier to access than to the vertiginous cliff of the Poike volcano.
Ana More Mata Puku
Very close to Ana o Keke is the other cave type Ana Hue Poki. This is Ana More Mata Puku. It is located about 60 meters northwest and 80 meters lower than Ana o Keke. Its entrance, which is only 10 meters above sea level, is difficult to find and access is very complicated and dangerous. Only a few experts and scholars have visited it.
This cave, as a complement to Ana o Keke, was destined to recruit male youth. It is not known what was the purpose of enclosing the boys in such an abrupt place. The cave is much smaller than the one for girls and has a trapezoidal shape, with a depth of just over 6 meters and a maximum width of 6 meters at the opening and 3 meters at the bottom. The average height is 1.4 m which allows you to move easily by bending down a little.
Here too, a few petroglyphs of simple but difficult to decipher designs have been discovered. It is said that one of them could represent a European ship with three masts. These images of ships do appear in other places in Rapa Nui, such as Ana Kai Tangata or in the torso of the Ko Kona He Roa moai, and are a sample of the effect caused by the first European navigators in the ancient islanders.
Tips for visiting Ana o Keke
The first thing to note is that the visit of Ana o Keke is not contemplated in the usual routes that can be done in the Rapa Nui National Park. In fact, the Poike sector itself is not part of the tourist circuits of the large agencies since it can only be traveled on foot.
Only a few local agencies offer personalized visits to the Poike volcano and its hidden mysteries. The proposals are mainly based on hiking or riding a horse accompanied by an experienced guide. Horseback riding is a unique experience as it allows you to discover the island without haste and recover the feeling of adventure.
There is the option of climbing on your own, since the route is safe and not too difficult. However, because the main sites of interest are not easy to find without a local guide, you may miss them and return frustrated from the walk.
If you want to visit the cave of Ana o Keke, we strongly recommend hiring the services of a local guide. A good option is Samuel Atán de Ruta Rapa Nui who will reveal to the interested all his wisdom.
More information about Ruta Rapa Nui
Warning! Access to visit the Ana o Keke cave is complicated and dangerous. The entrance is located on the wall of a cliff 130 meters high and to reach it you have to walk along a narrow path and rid rocks 2 meters high. Any stumble or bad step can cause a fall that causes death.
Unlike in the other volcanoes, in the Poike there is no National Park kiosk where to present the ticket, but this can be required at any time by the park rangers, so it is convenient to have it on hand.
More information about Rapa Nui National Park
Most of the Poike is fenced with barbed wire, since the area visited is used by the islanders to graze cattle. So that locals and tourists can walk freely as long as they do not disturb the animals and respect the rules of the National Park.
Another fact to keep in mind is that being a rural land, there are no toilets or food services for visitors to use in Poike. The closest ones are in Rano Raraku, so it is better to go prepared and bring water and some food.
It is advisable to wear sunscreen, comfortable clothes and sports shoes with thick soles, since the paths of the route are steep and can be slippery especially if it has rained recently. Despite the low elevation of the Poike, the climate at the summit can be very different from that of the base, so it is advisable to wear a windbreaker or a raincoat to protect yourself from strong winds and occasional downpours.
How to get to Ana o Keke
Ana o Keke is located about 900 meters from the Mau’nga Perehe hill, the last of the three hills that rise on the north slope of the Poike, and which presents great erosion due to its proximity to the cliff.
The entrance to the cave is only about 20 meters below the edge of the slope, but the steep slope, the slippery terrain and its remote location make access very difficult. A small stone landmark indicates the place of entry.
The Poike Peninsula is located about 20 km from Hanga Roa. The shortest route is to exit Hotu Matu’a Avenue that goes to the airport. After reaching the end, follow the road that crosses the island in the direction of Anakena for 2.5 km until you take the first turn to the right that leads to the south coast road. Continue to Tongariki and about 2 km later there is a small detour that leads to a small house. At that point the vehicle is left and the ascent begins along the path to explore the volcano.
There is another access, at the point known as Mahatua. located on the northeast coast of the Poike and that is just over 2 km from the first point continuing along the road that borders the slope of the volcano.
Read more about getting around Easter Island
If you do not want to hire a tour that includes transportation, the easiest way to get there is by renting a car, a quad or a bicycle. Another option would be to take a taxi to take you to Poike and pick you up later at an agreed time.