Subject matter of the inscriptions


According to Englert (1974:154), the practice of secluding children in remote places or special houses for a prolonged period of time in anticipation of puberty disappeared several decades before the arrival of the missionaries in the 1860's. This suggests that its demise was the result of internal developments in the island's cultural and religious belief system. It is proposed here that most of the surviving rongorongo inscriptions document this changed attitude regarding the cult of these so-called neru as they describe in great detail the negative impact on the children's physical and mental health. They can be characterized as appeals or petitions for the abolishment of the ritual seclusion.

The term neru has not been identified in the inscriptions. A possible explanation for this is that it originated as a derogatory term meaning "fat one". This would also explain its near absence in the neru chants. There is, however, another term that is used very frequently. It is written with the so-called "sitting man" who appears with and without a "stick" (fig. 1-2). The signs spell tetahi, "others", and tetahi 'a, "those others", respectively. In the latter, the details of hand and feet are often omitted as the arm and leg are attached directly to the stick.

By its name a child is both individualized and incorporated into society. It is therefore possible that the particular group name of "others" signified a temporary loss of individuality and membership of that society: "The metaphor of dissolution is often applied to neophytes; they are allowed top go filthy and identified with the earth, the generalized matter into which every specific individual is rendered down. Particular form here becomes general matter; often their very names are taken from them and each is called solely by the generic name for 'neophyte' or 'initiand' " (Turner 1967:96).  

The signs for tetahi and tetahi 'a seem to have been carefully designed as the image of a neru sitting crouched (in a cave) and raising the hand – in supplication or expectation – or holding a piece of sugarcane. The figure with the stick is usually part of a structured series of short phrases which is found – in different order and with many variations – on several tablets, most notably on the recto side of the Small Santiago tablet which has no less than 31 segments, and on the verso side of tablet Keiti with 23 segments. The composite usually concludes a short question about the circumstances of the neru and the negative consequences of their prolonged seclusion, e.g., hanga po ra tetahi a, "Should those 'others' accept (living in) the darkness?" (fig. 3); haka-tei-tei ra tetahi ara, "Should those 'others' over there keep on growing?" (fig. 4); aringa he ui pehe tetahi a, "Which face (we) see looks like those 'others'?" (fig. 5).  

In addition to tetahi, the neru are also referred to as tama, "children", or tama uha, "female children", i.e., "girls", and the sign appropriately depicts a bird chick with an opened mouth or looking up to be fed (fig. 6-7). This makes it easy to identify another glyph picturing a bird – with an open beak as if ready to feed its young – as matua, "parent". In some instances, it occurs as matua uha, "female parent", i.e., "mother" (fig. 3). The mothers and the women who take care of the neru are also simply referred to as uha, "woman" (lit. "hen").

The inscriptions do not clearly state who the opponents of the ritual seclusion and possible composers of the texts are. In general, they refer to themselves as "we" with exclusive maatou to distinguish them from the group they seek to convince. In some occasions, however, it encompasses both these groups and separates them from the children. An example of the first case is: "Those children are precious to us!" (fig. 9), where "us" represents the ones who oppose their seclusion. The second case can be observed in pehe maatou tae aringa, "(The children's) faces do not look like us" (fig. 10). Here, maatou includes both opponents and supporters of the cult while the children are excluded. As a result of the presence of these opposing parties the use of inclusive taatou is much rarer compared to maatou. It appears, for example, in a situation where a communal responsibility for the inception or perpetuation of the cult is expressed as in haka-riki-riki o tae rangirua ture otaatou, "Should (the children) be weakened because (we) do not question our disgust?" (fig. 11). Another example of this is given in fig. 12 which reads tahu-tahu tae taatou ki taatou, "We would not distribute (that food) to ourselves".

In the cases where there is a distinction made between opponents and audience, the supporters of seclusion are addressed with plural "you" (korua). The seclusion results from the fact that they will not lift the taboos regarding the menarche: hinga no ture okorua, "(You) should abandon your disgust" (fig. 13).

Although the intended audience doubtlessly includes those parents who take part most actively in the ritual by sending their children away, there are also statements which refer to "parents" in a general way, e.g., too ahu matua, "The parents should reject (the children's) fatness" (fig. 14); ravaa ta tangata he matua, "Should parents take away (their children's) human color?" (fig. 15).

In the same way, the term tangata is used both for "people" in general and for specific groups. An example of the first is tuu tangata tae amo raua, "Human beings stand upright, they are not carried!" (fig. 16). In the second example, ina hanga ro atu tangata ana tehe, "The people do not like (the children) if (they) reach menses" (fig. 17), the advocates of abolishment are obviously excluded.

The menses is referred to as tehe, which also means "to flow" in general, and also as tohu, "curse", or a combination of the two: tehe tohu, "cursed flow" (fig. 18). The use of the term "curse", clearly originates in the taboos surrounding the menarche. Both terms appear as adjectives attached to the children: tama tohu, "cursed children" in (fig. 19), and tama tehe, "menstruating children", in: tahuri-tahuri tama tehe po, "Should those menstruating children be completely upset/transformed by the darkness?" (fig. 20). As shown by these examples, the word tehe is written with the "leg"-glyph standing or stretched out horizontally. The example in fig. 21 offers a rare appearance of the horizontal variant as an independent sign: tatapu era tangata i tehe taina: "Should the people declare (them) taboo because (our) sisters reach menses?"    

The term taina, "sister", is a less frequently appearing reference to the neru. Literally it means "sibling", but apparently its use is not restricted to this as it can also include cousins and close friends (McCall 1981:68). It seems unlikely that the inscriptions were using the term in the narrow sense, i.e., that the petitioners consisted only of brothers and sisters of the neru. In all probability, the term should be interpreted in the wider signification. Possibly it is describing the same group as the word tama, as is, for example, suggested by the phrase maa a puha / ina tama a ina taina, "(Their) fatness is a disgrace. (They) are not (our) children, (they) are not (our) 'sisters'!" (fig. 22).

In one of the neru chants, it is stated that the children have to go through their ordeal "for the family, for the gods" (cf. text B4). Some of the texts collected by Routledge explicitly mention Tangaroa and Hiro, both gods associated with water, darkness, death and the spirit world (cf. texts R1-6). In the rongorongo texts, the references to the children's family as important instigator of the rite are evident: moaha ahu mo matua, "Why are (they) growing fat for the parents?" (fig. 23); ahu ro mo ki matua, "Should (they) grow fat because the parents order (it)?" (fig. 24). Although the gods themselves appear to be absent, there are two terms in the inscriptions that hint at the religious and mythical dimension of the neru rite.  

In some texts, the word 'ata, "shadow", "reflection", "image", appears, In many Polynesian cultures, the appearance of a spirit or a god in material animate form is described as its 'ata, which is best translated in this connection as "simulation" or "incarnation". From the context it is clear that in the inscriptions the term refers to the bodily form into which the neru were transformed through their overeating, e.g., tari-tari ata ana heke ata na, "Should (the children) be carrying those 'shadows' if those 'shadows' violate (them)?" (fig. 25). It is therefore possible that the neru were in some way seen as incarnations of supernatural beings, something to which the fish and bird metaphors that are used for the secluded children in the chants also seem to be indicating.

The other term is tangata ika, "victim", "human sacrifice" (fig. 26). In the Tahua inscription it seems to point to the sacrificial aspect of the rite, something that is also suggested by an intriguing passage on the same tablet that refers to the neru's transformation as apinga hauhaa, "a precious offering" (fig. 27). Possibly, there is also some connection between tangata ika and the fish metaphors in the neru chants.


The seclusion of the neru appears in the inscriptions as huru, which is written with a sign that has been likened to the extinct palm species of Easter Island. Englert (1974:163) gives poki huru hare as the term for children who were confined to the house to obtain a fair skin color. As such, the term may be related to uru, "to enter", "to go inside". An example from the Large St. Petersburg tablet reads huru ana rotu tama na, "Should (they) be secluded if the children protest?" (fig. 28).

Occasionally, the inscriptions refer to seclusion as hue, a word that also appears in ana hue neru, the name that was given to Englert (1974:182) for the caves in which the neru were "gathered". The term hue, however, also translates as "to hide", "to conceal". In the inscriptions, the syllables of the word are combined into a bottle gourd, which is also called hue (fig. 29). As the term "gourd" also appears to have been a metaphorical reference to the cave of the neru (cf. Neru cult), it is not always clear whether the word should be interpreted as "seclusion" or as "place of seclusion". Examples of this are ata haoa-haoa hue a, "That seclusion will hurt (them) more" (fig. 30) and tata ana tae hue, "Would (they) be in agony if (they) were not secluded?" (fig. 31). Frequently, the postverbal marker ro is attached to the small end as in rangi mo hue ro, "(They) are crying because (they) are secluded" (fig. 32). The figure of the gourd also appears in the petroglyphs at 'Ana O Keke and in one of the 'Orongo houses, places which had "gathering", and in all likelihood also "seclusion", in common.

Fatness and lameness

The most important reason to isolate the neru was to prepare them for their departure from childhood. In anticipation of the menarche they were forced to become obese through a strict diet of sweet foods and a lack of exercise. In the inscriptions, the word that is mostly used for "fat" and "to become fat" is ahu, "swollen", "to swell". It is represented by one of the most common signs, which has sometimes been likened to a turtle (fig. 33). There could have been several reasons for the construction and use of this particular composite sign. As elite children, the neru probably belonged to the "royal" clan of the Miru which traced its ancestry back to Tangaroa. As has been discussed in the pages on the neru cult, during this rite of passage the neru appear to have had strong links with Po, the world of the spirits. Turtles were in many parts of Polynesia connected to both kingship and the supernatural. A reference to honu, "turtle", to honui, "noble", "nobility", is therefore an additional possibility. Some examples of this ubiquitous sign are: tama ahu, "fat children" (fig. 34); ahu tama na, "Should the children grow fat?" (fig. 35). On the Santiago Staff, one finds the statements ahu mo po no, "(They) grow fat because (they) are always in the dark" (fig. 36), and mo hue ro ahu ro, "Because (they) are secluded, (they) will become fat" (fig. 37). On the Large Santiago tablet it is asked ahu ana tae hue, "Would (they) grow fat, if (they) were not secluded?" (fig. 38).

The texts have several synonyms for ahu, such as nui, "big", e.g., hakari nui, "large bodies" (fig. 39); nako, "fat", "to be fat", e.g., hakari nako, "fat bodies" (fig. 40); puha, "to get fat" (fig. 41); punga, "big", "fat", "fleshy" (fig. 42); heka-heka, "flabbiness" (fig. 43); puhi-puhi, "puffiness" (fig. 44).  

Englert (1939:197;208-209) was told that the neru were forbidden to eat sweet potatoes and that their most important food was sugarcane juice, which is confirmed by the inscriptions where it appears as toa, "sugarcane". On tablet Keiti, for instance, these questions are raised: hanga nako toa, "Should (the children) accept the fatness from the sugarcane?" (fig. 45) and anga kiko toa, "Should (the children) accept the bodies (lit. flesh) coming from the sugarcane?" (fig. 46).

Two verbs that appear frequently in this context are haka-tei(-tei), "to grow", "to make grow", and haka-teki(-teki), "to be lame", "to make lame". The signs look very similar and they are often found in the same fragments. Sometimes they are interchangeable, for example, the toa haka-tei,  "sugarcane that makes (them) grow" in text H (fig. 47) parallels toa haka-teki, "the sugarcane that makes (them) lame" in text P (fig. 48). The shortcut taken by the latter can be compared to the more accurate haka-teki ahu, "The fatness makes (them) lame" (fig. 49), haka-teki-teki heka, "The flabbiness makes (them) lame" (fig. 50), and haka-teki pangahaa, "The weight makes (them) lame" (fig. 51). The fact that excessive growth results in difficulty in moving, while lack of movement in turn leads to more weight offers an explanation for the switch of the verbs' positions in parallel lines Hv8 and Pv9, haka-teki-teki – haka-tei-tei versus haka-tei-tei – haka-teki-teki, respectively.  

Paleness and blindness

The other aspect of the "beauty" of the secluded children – the paleness of their skin – is also found in the inscriptions. For "skin color" the word most frequently used is ta, "color", e.g., ta o tama, "the color of the children" (fig. 52); tahi-tahi a ina ta tangata a, "(Their color) is erased, those people have no color" (fig. 53); On the Santiago Staff, it is recorded how the paleness of the skin is achieved by protection from the sunlight: huru mo po ura, "(They) are secluded to obscure the flames (of the sun)" (fig. 54); mo po tava-tava, "Because (they) are obscured, (they) become pale" (fig. 55). As a result they become highly vulnerable to the sun: haoa tama mo tutu ta, "The children will be harmed if (their) skin color is burned!" (fig. 56).

Living in the darkness in caves or special houses not only bleached the skin of the secluded children, it also affected their eyesight: tahuri-tahuri ui, "(Their) vision is completely upset" (fig. 57). In the inscriptions, the two important neru characteristics, fatness and paleness, are often found close together or in similar constructions. Their relation is made especially clear by the parallel fragments in lines Hv8 and Pv9 where they appear in the same position: ahu ana tae hue, "Would (they) grow fat if (they) were not secluded?" (fig. 58) versus mae ana tae hue, "Would (they) grow pale if (they) were not secluded?" (fig. 59). The parity of the concepts is also demonstrated by the so-called "genealogy" sequence on the verso side of the Small Santiago tablet: ahu mo hanga ahu / mae mo hanga mae, "Should (they) grow fat because (we) like fatness? Should (they) grow pale because (we) like paleness?" (fig. 60).

Sickness, depression, and death

The picture that the neru songs draw of the harsh circumstances which the secluded children had to endure is confirmed in the inscriptions on wood. It is evident that the isolated stay in the dark, damp cave, the lack of sunlight and exercise, and the fattening diet had a devastating effect on their physical and mental health.

In addition to the already mentioned "fatness", "lameness", and "blindness", the neru's physical discomforts are described by a variety of terms including rua, "sickness"; ahe, "headaches"; tata, "agony"; ngaaha, "exhaustion"; mamae, "to suffer"; hehe "to be dazzled"; haka-tuu, "immobility"; kiki, "stiffness"; haoa, "to be in pain", "to have wounds"; moe, "to lie down", "to faint"; toto, "to harm"; raha-raha, "to stoop", "to bend over", hura-hura, hoko, "to sway". An example from tablet Tahua reads mamae tetahi tetahi haoa, "Some are suffering pains, others have wounds!" (fig. 61). The most disturbing term for the neru's condition, however, is mate or mamate which not only means "to be very ill", "to be powerless", but also "to die" or "to be dead". On tablet Aruku Kurenga, for example, it says mamate tetahi hoki tetahi,  "Some die, others recover" (fig. 62). Arturo Teao used almost the exact same words when he told Englert: "When the neru reappeared among the people, they tended to become ill; some died, others recovered" (1939:208).

The inscriptions contain a number of statements on the neru's mental condition, ranging from unhappiness to losing their sanity: para-para, "spleen"; roki-roki, "melancholy; rangi, "screaming"; heva, niva, "madness". The term used most frequently for the children's psychological state is rangirua, a word that does not occur in the Rapanui vocabularies but which in Māori means "to be confused", "to hesitate", "to doubt", etc. Examples of this are: rangirua roro era, "(Their) mind becomes confused" (fig. 63); rangirua i ahu a, "(They) become confused because (they) are fat" (fig. 64); rangirua era heka, "(Their) flabbiness confuses (them)" (fig. 65); rangirua era mo mae, "The children are confused because (they) grow pale" (fig. 66). A clear comment on the secluded girls' feelings is found on the Santiago Staff: hanga ro tama mo pii mo ahu mo haka-tari nui kai / tara mo ika-ika tara rangi mo piro-piro roro ra, "The children want to stop to grow fat because (their) eating is making (them) carry too much! Should (they) calm down if (they) are victims? Should (they) be calm (or) cry out if (their) minds are deteriorating?" (fig. 67).


As mentioned in the introduction, the mythological dimension and the metaphorical imagery that is encountered in some of the neru songs is absent in the inscriptions on wood. Names of gods such as Tangaroa and Hiro do not appear, even though the presence of the concept of 'ata which suggests that at one time the neru were seen as receptacles for some divine power is still present. Possibly, the fish and bird metaphors which appear in the songs and which seem to allude to a similar ritual transformation, have left some faint traces in the terms ika and tangata ika and the "young bird"-sign for tama. Their indistinctness or absence suggests that the ritual aspects of the seclusion had been relegated to the background at the time the rongorongo texts were composed. Instead, the focus is on the prolonged isolation and the physical change involving fatness, paleness, sickness, and menarche, and the severe psychological effects these had on the participants.

In the rongorongo texts, this process of transformation is called tahuri, hariu, or huri, literally "to turn", "to be overturned", "to be upset", or simply riro, "to change". Some examples of the use of these terms are: haka-teki kei ngaaha ko / tahuri kei, "(Their) abilities are lamed by exhaustion over there, (their) abilities are upset" (fig. 68); tahuri-tahuri ta, "(Their) color is completely changed" (fig. 69); hariu-hariu ke o ahu ke, "(They) change very much because (they) grow extremely fat" (fig. 70); hanga ana huri-huri ahu, "Should (they) accept (it) if the fatness changes (them)?" (fig. 71); mo huru mo ura riro-riro, "If (they) are secluded for the sunlight, (they) will change" (fig. 72). There is nothing here to suggest that the neru's fattening and bleaching was still connected to the type of mythical transformation that is suggested by some of the neru chants. There are only two reasons given for the seclusion and the changes that the children undergo and both of them are challenged. The first one is that the children will become "beautiful" (tau). On the Santiago Staff, for example, it is said ahu mo tau toa,"Should the sugarcane fatten (them) to be beautiful?" (fig. 73). The same question is raised on tablet Tahua: ui tau i haka-tei-tei, "Will (they) see (their) beauty when (they) have grown?" (fig. 74). These examples illustrate that the traditional idea that a fattened body represented "beauty" was no longer accepted by everyone. Instead, the inscriptions emphasize that their beauty will be taken away by the deplorable circumstances of seclusion and obesity.

The second reason that is given for the seclusion is the anticipation of the menarche: tehe tama tau, "The beautiful children will achieve menses" (fig. 75); tehe ni tohu ana hue a: "That 'curse' will 'flow' if (they) are secluded" (fig. 76). On tablet Mamari, this practice of isolating menstruating women is questioned: hanga ro tehe too uha tehe / naa atu tangata i tehe / maa ana tehe atu / tehe po maai tehe tae riva, "Should (we) accept the menses (or) reject the menstruating women? Should the people hide (them) because (they) menstruate? Are (they) shameful if (they) menstruate? The menses is obscured, (but) for whom is that menses something bad?" (fig. 77). The term maa, "shameful", may have been an expression of the taboos surrounding the menses, much in the same way as tohu, "cursed". As a result of the changing attitude, however, it is repeatedly used to challenge the practice of seclusion and its consequences: tae maa na ora o huru, "Is (their) life not a shame because (they) are secluded?" (fig. 78): mamae ro tama a tae maa ngaaha, "Those children are suffering! Is (their) exhaustion not a disgrace?" (fig. 79); ina maa a ahu hue tangata kira, "Is that fatness not shameful? Should those people be secluded over there?" (fig. 80).  

28 (Pv5)

huru ana     rotu    tama na

29 (Ev7)


 7 (Ca10)

6 (Aa4)

 8 (Ca9)

  tama   uha


  matua   uha

31 (Er4)

      tata  ana (tae)


   ahu       ahu        ahu       ahu   ahu

34 (Aa2)

33 (Ab1; Hr7; Pr6; Qv2; Pr6)

36 (I3)

  ahu  tama na

 tama ahu

ahu mo po no

32 (I9)

30 (Rb6)

   ata    haoa-haoa hue a

45 (Ev5)

hanga nako  toa

 hanga kiko  toa


 49 (I9)

haka-teki-teki heka

  haka-teki    ahu

 35 (Pv5)

 37 (I8)

 mo  hue   ahu     a

           ro        ro

38 (Hv8)

39 (Bv12)

  hakari  nako

    hakari      nui

44 (Er1) (Horley 2010a:51)

     puhi - puhi

40 (Ev6)

    ahu ana (tae)


42 (Bv10)



41 (Hv11)

 46 (Ev3)

48 (Hv7)

47 (Pv9)

 toa     haka-teki

  toa    haka-tei

52 (Pr10)

 51 (Hr1)

    ta    o   tama

 53 (Ra6)

  tahi-tahi  a    ina      ta  tangata a

 haka-teki pangahaa

56 (Gv4)

haoa tama mo tutu ta

 54 (I6)

  huru mo po ura

57 (Ca2)

[ta]huri-ta(hu)ri  ui  

55 (I1)

 mo   po    tava-tava

62 (Br3)

mamate tetahi  hoki   tetahi

64 (Gr5)

63 (Sa4)

[ra]ngirua i   ahu   a

rangirua roro era

66 (Gv7)

65 (Sb4)

rangirua era   heka

[ra]ngirua tama mo mae

61 (Ab1) (from Fischer (1997:407)

 mamae    tetahi     tetahi   haoa

71 (Qv2)

70 (Aa8)

  hariu-     o  ahu

 hari(u) ke     ke

hanga ana huri-   ahu


  74 (Aa2)

73 (I10)

  ui       tau  i haka-tei-te(i)

ahu mo  tau    toa

76 (Br9)

75 (Bv9)

 tehe tama tau

 tehe ni tohu ana hue a

78 (Aa1)

(tae)   ora    o   huru


80 (Hr1)

  ina    maa  a   ahu   a  hue a  tangata kira

9 (Gv3)

10 (Aa3)

pehe maatou    (tae)


11 (Aa3)

15 (Br2)

ravaa    ta  tangata he matua

24 (I1)

ahu ro mo ki matua

23 (I1)

 moaha ahu mo matua

26 (Ab1)

tangata ika

58 (Hv8)

 ahu ana (tae)


59 (Pv7)

mae ana (tae)


mo huru mo ura riro-


69 (Br7)

   tahuri-      ta


 68 (Db6)

haka-[te]-ki  kei ngaaha  ko       tahuri     kei

72 (I3)

 rangi mo  hue ro


heka - heka

Added: 2016-11-03  Modified: 2017-08-20

2 (Ev3)

1 (Ab1)

[te]ta[hi] a


4 (Gr4) (from Fischer (1997:440)

haka-tei-tei  ra   tetahi ara

3 (Ev4)

hanga   po  ra   tetahi  a

5 (Ev5)

aringa he   ui      pehe  tetahi a

13 (Aa3)

hinga no  ture  okorua

17 (Aa3)

   ina    hanga ro atu tangata ana tehe

    haka-     o   (tae)  ture   otaatou

   riki-riki       rangirua  

12 (Cb2) (from Horley2010a:53)

       tahu  -   tahu  (tae) taatou ki taatou

14 (Ab5)

 too   ahu    matua

16 (Er6)

tuu  tangata (tae) amo raua

21 (Ab2)

    tatapu  era  tangata i tehe    taina

20 (Ca2)

18 (Ab5)





 tahuri-  tama   po

ta(hu)ri       tehe

19 (Aa1)

auraa    momaatou


22 (Hv11)

 maa  a  puha  ina tangata a  ina       taina

25 (Er7)

    tari-tari      ata ana heke  ata  na

27 (Ab6)

  apinga         hauhaa


   ahu  mo  hanga ahu    mae mo  hanga mae

67 (I10)

hanga tama     pii  mo   ahu  mo  haka- nui kai

   ro          mo                             tari

   tara mo ika-i(ka)  tara    rangi mo piro-piro

                                                    roro ra

 77 (Ca12)

hanga ro      too  uha tehe naa atu tangata i

          tehe                                          tehe

   maa ana atu  tehe po maai tehe (tae)

          tehe                                   riva

mamae tama  (tae)

       ro       a maa ngaaha

  79 (Pr3)

(drawings from Barthel (1958) except where indicated)