Added: 2016-08-20

Pre-modern society has often feared female menstruation as an evil omen. To quarantine this potential source of contamination, it had to be contained by elaborate ritual, in particular by avoidance of physical contact with the menstruating woman. Special attention was given to young females at the onset of menarche: they were often removed from their family and confined to special houses or remote locations. Isolation from society could last from a few days up to several years, during which time the girls' chastity was closely guarded as they were prepared for marriage by enhancing their appearance (cf. Frazer 1913:22-100). In Polynesia, where overall plumpness and fairness of complexion were important physical desiderata in general, this could include bleaching of the skin by protection against the sunlight or other means, and fattening of the body by special diets and lack of exercise (Oliver 2002:127). These aesthetic ideals were pursued especially by high status groups. Writing about Mangareva, Buck noted, for example, that "[a] well-nourished body and fair complexion were considered the physical attributes of chiefly rank" (1938:117).

The ritual isolation of children before puberty has also been reported in connection with the elite. On the Marquesan island of Nuku Hiva, "it was said that there were certain tapu places where girls in general, but particularly daughters of chiefs, were taken at the time of their first menstruation" (Handy 1923:94). The selected children of both sexes who were submitted to the practice of seclusion on Easter Island were probably also of chiefly families (Métraux 1940:104). They were kept indoors as poki huru hare, "children who have to stay inside the house" (Englert 1974:163), or secluded as neru, "virgins" in the native translation, in two remote caves located in the north-eastern part of the island, 'Ana O Keke (for girls) and 'Ana More Mata Puku (for boys) (Englert 1974:182-184).

The cult of the neru

Puberty rite

According to tradition, the dominant political force on Easter Island was the tribe of the Miru, which supplied the 'ariki mau (Routledge 1919:241) and many of the birdmen (Horley 2012:69). The distribution pattern of certain petroglyphs "suggests that, in earlier times, one clan, probably the Miru, controlled the entire north coast, including the northern half of the Tupahotu and the Poike Peninsula" (Lee 1992:115). This would mean that the site of 'Ana O Keke was located in Miru territory. It is therefore likely that the neru not only came from chiefly families, but were also members of the "royal" tribe of the Miru. One of the recitations of Ure Vaeiko refers to this tribe: tangi teina / i te hare huru a / i te hare huru a mo nire / haka-hiti i te ori Miru / ana piri atu: "(Your) little sister is crying in that place of seclusion, in that place of seclusion for virgins! (But) (she) will reappear at the Miru festival, when (you) will meet again!" (cf. text T3). Two other texts mention this ceremony as koro Miru (M2; C3). Other terms suggesting a "royal" or noble birth for the girls are 'ariki (R6) and vi'e honui, "noble woman" (M14).

In post-missionary times, the beauty of the neru was chiefly associated with their "fairness", thereby giving the impression that attaining a light complexion was the main reason for their seclusion. The surviving texts describe the girls' skin color with a variety of partly overlapping terms. The word mea, "fair", "blond", "red", is used, for example, in Atu'a Mata Riri (T1), verse 34: e timo te ra'a e mea: "The sun is deplored by this fair one!" Tea, "white", "pale", appears in a version of the He timo te akoako chant: i ai hetu'u haka-hihinga te 'ariki o ara nui o ara hihi / ko te tea ka huhu mai te hau o te 'ariki kiroto nei ki runga nei: "When the stars are there, (he) will be made to go down, the 'king' of that broad path, of that shining path! How pale (you will become) when the beams of the 'king' weaken, inside here (and) above (this cave)!" (text R3). Other terms that are used are ritorito, "white", "fair", in a song published by Knoche and others: ka huru koe neru e / ka huru kata / ka ritorito i te 'ana: "How secluded you were, neru! How secluded (your) laughter was! How white (you) became in that cave!" (text 4), mariri, "colorless": ka mariri mai to'oku aro nei aue aue: "How colorless this face of mine is, alas, alas!" (text M3) and maeha: "(to become) light": ki ai kiroto maeha: "(She) must stay inside (and) grow pale!" (T1, vs 32). Possibly, verse 2 alludes to the unhealthy aspect of the bleaching practice by describing the complexion as kihikihi, which can be interpreted as "colorless", but also as "grayish" or even "greenish" from the original meaning of "lichen".

Some traditions maintain that the neru used red ochre (ki'ea) to enhance their beauty (e.g., text K1). Although its decorative use as bodypaint by both sexes is well attested for Easter Island, it seems strange that it would have been applied by children who were specifically admired for their "fairness". It is therefore more likely that it served some ritual purpose or was used as protection for the sun.

It does not come as a great surprise that a prolonged stay in the damp and dark quarters of 'Ana O Keke in combination with an unhealthy diet and a lack of exercise had severe repercussions on the physical and mental condition of the inhabitants. A century after the disappearance of the practice this was still known to Arturo Teao: Ana ea-mai te neru kiruŋa kiroto ki te taŋata, he-mamate; ké mo mate, ké mo ora: "When the neru reappeared among the people, they tended to become ill; some died, others recovered" (Englert 1939:208). The neru chants give the same impression and list a wide range of serious health problems. Staying in the dark affected the girls' eyesight, resulting in keva, "blindness" (E1; T1, vs 18) and haha, "groping around (blindly)" (C1). They also suffered from ahe: "headache" (H1; T1, vs 24; 28); more: "misery", "pain" (E1; G1), maki, mamaki, "distress", "sore" (C4; E1; M3; T2), rua, "nausea", "vomiting" (C1; C4; M3; T1, vs 40), rehu, rerehu, "fainting", "collapsing" (C3; T1, vs 19; 41), ru, ruru, "shivering", "tremors" (E1; T1, vs 40), and havahava, "scurvyness" (E1). Two texts use the term puti, which means "plump", but also "dropsy", "oedema" (G1; E1). The resulting difficulties with walking are indicated by words such as 'eta, "stiffness" (T1, vs 6), kone, kokone, "clumsiness" (C1; C2; T1, vs 10), haro, "limping" (C1; C2), koke, "lameness" (R5), and maruhi, "paralytic" (T1, vs 25).

Some texts which compare the neru to "birds", extend this metaphor to their handicaps. They are, for example, described as uha here uha kapa uha rava: "trapped hens", "wing-flapping hens", "captured hens" (H1). The secluded girl in Ure Vaeiko's text "Ate-a-renga-hokau iti poheraa" is called manu haka-opa, "crippled bird" (T3). Another expression is manu va'e eha, "four-legged birds", which probably not only referred to their moving around on all fours in the shallow cave system, but also to their inability to stand on two feet as a result of their obesity (C3; H1; R1; R4).

Confined to their sluggish bodies and the dreary surroundings of 'Ana O Keke, the secluded children had more than enough reasons to develop serious mental problems. The neru are described – by themselves or by the composers of these chants – as "exiles" (tui, text B4) and "captives" (ranga, texts B3; G1; R1) who were "subjected" (haka-kio, text C2) by a "desolate cave" ('ana roki, text C4), a "murky hole" (pu ehu, text C2), a "crack in the earth" (ava henua, text T2), and a "crevice" ('opata, texts B1; C3). That the anxieties of isolation in combination with the physical discomforts made them feel depressed is evidenced by such terms as tangi, "to cry" (B1; C2; C4; T3), haka-eki, "to cry very loud" (G1), tatake, "to be annoyed" (G1; H1; E1), para, parapara, "melancholy" (H1; T1, vs 24, T2), kava, "bitterness" (H1; T1, vs 22), onge, "misery" (H1; R5; T1, vs 42), and heva, "sorrow", "sadness", "to rave", "to be delirious" (B1; H1; T1, vs 42; T2). Instead of Rapanui niva-niva, "to become dazed", "delirium", "madness", texts H1 and R2-4 use the term aniva, which in related Polynesian languages has meanings such as "dizziness", "bewildered", "unsteady" (Biggs et al. 2015).

The kohe, a species of fern, growing on the coast (Englert 1978:177) is another plant that is requested for the neru in Atu'a Mata Riri: kava kohekohe ka pu te kohe matua nua: "Those kohe-plants taste bitter, bring on the kohe-plants, mother!" (T1, vs 3-4). Salmon's translation of kohe as "medicine" indicates that it was still valued for its curative powers in the 1880's.  

In T1, vs 22-24, two other plants are mentioned in connection with the neru's health, but their medicinal properties are not clear. They may also have been included because they would have provided a welcome change in a monotonous diet of sweet foods: ka pu te pia mangeongeo / ki ai kiroto he rakerake / ka pu te kape ahe / ki ai kiroto para: "Bring on the bitter arrowroot! (She) has to stay inside, feeling bad! Bring on the arum, (she) has headaches! (She) has to stay inside, feeling melancholic!" The pia (Tacca pinnatifada) was described to Métraux (1940:158) as a food plant which resembled the pua, the "turmeric" (Curcuma longa), but with white tubers, the unprepared starch of which is bitter and poisonous. A white dye was obtained from it, which could mean that it was a body paint ingredient similar to the yellow dye of the turmeric, or another whitening paste. The kape, "arum", "giant taro", "dryland taro" (Alocasia macrorrhizos), is akin to the taro, but it needed "cooking it in the earth-oven for more than fifteen days, in order to kill the poison" (Fuentes 1960:856). Because both the arrowroot and the arum require extensive processing before they can be safely eaten, they were probably only used in times of shortage. This could have been precisely the reason why they are mentioned in connection with the neru: to stress the monotony of a diet which made them even long for the most unpopular of foods.

The ethnographic sources on Easter Island have very little information concerning the seclusion of boys. The same holds true for the neru chants discussed here which are dealing exclusively with girls. Whenever these texts make mention of a remote cave as place of isolation, they appear to be referring to 'Ana O Keke, the "Cave of the Setting Sun", which was also known as the "Cave of the White Virgins".

The first investigator to mention the seclusion of children and the use of caves for this goal was Knoche who took part in the Chilean expedition to Easter Island in 1911: "This remote island also had some kind of Vestal virgins cult, whereby fathers secluded their daughters in caves, for the rest of their life or until they reached puberty" (1925:191). The reference to ancient Rome indicates that Knoche suspected some ritual dimension in the neru custom. The life-long seclusion he mentions, however, is not confirmed by any other source. In 1922, similar information was collected by Brown: "Parents kept their sons as well as their daughters in seclusion up to puberty; this was called huru. Neither boy nor girl was to indulge the sexual passion during immaturity or until the maori had examined them and declared them virginal. Then, and only then, could they be admitted to training for the choruses at the festivals; then, and only then, were they supposed to be marriageable" (1924:221).

That the first menses marked the end of the seclusion for girls, is confirmed in the last verses of Atu'a Mata Riri: turu herohero te toto o te kovare ... e'a 'ana ki horou: "(it) will stream down red, the blood of the (menstrual) discharge! ... (She) is leaving that cave in a hurry!" (cf. text T1 (1)). In a song fragment published (but misinterpreted) by Métraux, a neru girl complains to her companions: e manu e ka pari mai toto hare kere ena 'a'aku: "O 'birds', until (my) blood is spilled, this gloomy place will be mine!" (text M1). In another text, collected by Campbell, the end of a girl's seclusion is announced by the ma'ori ("experts") as: vai tino e'a vai tuturu roa e: "The vaginal fluid is appearing, the fluid is coming down in a broad stream!" (cf. text C4).

A small path on the steep the only access to the cave.

Fig. 3



Although both informants emphasised the intake of sugarcane, they seemed unaware of the fattening effects of this type of high calorie diet. However, it appears to have had the same function as, for example, the popoi, consisting of "fruit, bananas, and mashed breadfruit mixed with water", reported by Moerenhout as being used in the Tahitian custom of ha'apori, "fattening" (1837:286). Englert's informants also assumed that sweet potatoes were forbidden because they would make the children fat whereas it must have been for the exact opposite reason. As the starchy kumara is low on calories it would not have contributed significantly to body weight increase, but being very nourishing, it would have prevented the intake of other, more fattening foods. In one text, the absence of sweet potatoes is mentioned as: i te po e manu e e au ta'e kai i te kumara o tou korohua nei: "In this darkness, o 'birds', I am not eating the sweet potatoes prepared by the old folks!" (text M1). The accounts of Tepano and Teao are also supported by T1, vs 31: ka pu ti 'ina kumara: "Bring on the ti-roots, (but) not the sweet potatoes!"

The ti-plant (Cordyline fruticosa) which first appears in T1, vs 6, may have been another important source of calories for the neru. Palmer, who visited the island in 1868, was the first to mention the plant. Although he noted that it was very plentiful, he did not think it was used as food (1870:170). According to Brown, however, "[t]he natives relied more on the root of the dracaena (ti) for their confection. Baked in the earth-oven it had far more sweetness in it than the sugar-cane" (1922:183).


The poporo is mentioned several times in Atu'a Mata Riri and is apparently administered for different purposes: ki ai kiroto ki 'ata poporo, "(she) has to stay in the shadows of the poporo", in verse 1 seems to describe a state of intoxication caused by the consumption of the berry. This is followed by ka pu te poporo ai na 'ina ma ra'au / ki ai kiroto taki ki tupu ena / ka pu te kihikihi aue vai: "Bring on those poporo-berries! (She) has nothing for medicine! (She) has to stay inside! (She) will preserve (them) until (they) are ripe! Bring on (her) colorlessness, oh juice!" (T1, vs 1-3), which suggests both medicinal and cosmetic usage. Further on, the plant is apparently credited with bringing on the first menses: ka pu te poporo / no mea a tanga ira / turu herohero te toto o te kovare: "Bring on those poporo-berries! Because of them, (it) will be released! The blood of the (menstrual) discharge will stream down red!" (T1, vs 44-45).

Fig. 2

'Ana O Keke's location on Poike


Medicinal and cosmetic plants

While the neru were still remembered in post-missionary times for their "virginity" and "beauty", the aspect of fattening seems to have disappeared to the background. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that it once played a crucial role in their seclusion. One important indication for this is the term neru which was translated as "virgin" but has no cognates with this meaning in other Polynesian languages. It is very likely related to Hawaiian nelu, "fat", "fleshy", "plump", and Māori ngerungeru, "to be obese", "to be shaking with fat" (Tregear 1891:283). The word occurs for the first time – as naru – in a kaikai song recorded in 1882 by Geiseler: haka-eki naru, "The neru are crying very loud" (cf. text G1). A few years later, the term nire – translated as "virgin" – appears in the vocabulary that was collected in 1886 by Thomson (1891:551). The first text to spell the word as neru appears to be a chant about one of these children, published by Knoche (cf. text K1). Its presence, however, is obscured as it is printed as fused with vocative particle e as "nerue" and translated as a term of endearment, "Kleine" [little one], which is in fact the exact opposite of its original meaning. The confusion about its meaning is best illustrated by Brown's "The Riddle of the Pacific", in which neru is compared with Māori ngeru, "smooth", "soft", "sleek" (1924:286). The word, also written as niru (1924:221), is alternatively explained as "virgin" (1924:85) and as "a man with long nails who does not work" (1924:286).  

Fig. 4


Fig. 5

Ti (Cordyline fruticosa)

However faint, traces of the practice of fattening can still be found in the information on the neru custom which Englert collected in the 1930's. Juan Tepano told him: Me'e ta'e kai i te kai rakerake he úka huru haré, he repa huru haré. He [t]oa paka nó te me'e kai, he maika, he uhi, kai itiiti-nó. Me'e paŋaha'a te kumara, oirá ana ta'e kai i te kumara. He ika hoki te me'e kai, kai ta'e nuinui, kai itiiti-: "(The secluded children) did not eat bad food. They only ate sugarcane, bananas, yams, and only in small amounts. Sweet potatoes are heavy, so they did not eat sweet potatoes. Fish they ate too, but not much, only small quantities" (1939:197), and on another occasion he said: He toa paka nó te kai: "The only food was sugarcane" (1939:209).

Another informant, Arturo Teao, confirmed the most important details, stating: Ina ekó kai i te kumara; te me'e mo kai he toa paka, he pipi, he puré: "They did not eat sweet potatoes, what they ate was sugarcane and shellfish" (1939:208).

Several neru texts have preserved references to the enlarged bodies resulting from the special diet using terms such as puta, "fat", "plump" (E1; G1), ahu, "swollen" (B4; C3; C4; H1; M2; T1, vs 5), pupuhi, "puffed up", "bloated" (T1, vs 22; 31), hiohio, "stout", "corpulent" (B3; T1, vs 16; 30), puha, "stuffed", "getting fat" (C3), and keakea, "swollen (of the belly)" (C3).

Judging by some of these texts, it seems questionable that plumpness was considered beautiful, at least at the time these texts were composed or adapted. A neru chant recorded by Routledge, for example, has the phrase haka-tau 'ariki na te toa, "Is the sugarcane really going to make this noble girl beautiful?" (R5). In T1, vs 4, the fattened body is described as being "wrinkled": ki ai kiroto ka pipini ai tau, "(She) has to stay inside until (her) beauty becomes wrinkled!" Another neru describes herself at the end of her confinement as mata nui araha e mata 'iti araro pi'opi'o e, "a gross figure to look at, but a delicate figure beneath all this banana flower juice!" (C1).

Fig. 6

Banana flower

There are several indications that in order to overcome these ailments a varied set of plants with medicinal properties was administered to the neru. Although it is difficult to establish what each of these was expected to remedy exactly, it seems logical to assume that some of them were used in the first place to alleviate the effects from overeating and inactivity. Others may have served to stimulate the bleaching of the skin or to suppress menstrual pains. It is even imaginable that some were applied to dull the children's senses when their mental state deteriorated or when they started to oppose their confinement.

On Easter Island, the poporo (solanum forsteri) was used both as food in times of scarcity (Métraux 1940:150) and as medicine (Fuentes 1960:825). The berries and leafs of closely related nightshade species such as the Black Nightshade (solanum nigrum) and the American Nightshade (solanum Americanum) are widely used in and outside the Pacific region for various purposes, such as the treatment of wounds and the regulation of menses (Wiart 2006:275). However, eating of the toxic nightshade is not without risk and the unripe berries in particular are poisonous.  

Fig. 7

Ripe and green poporo berries

Another plant of which the fruits were likely administered for medicinal and/or cosmetic purposes is the marikuru, the "soapberry" (Sapindus saponaria), which appears in T1, vs 14. The berries of this small tree may have been used to stimulate the bleaching process or as remedy for skin problems and suppressing hemorrhages. According to the botanist Fuentes (in 1913), on Easter Island it was the source of an astringent medicine (Langdon 1996a:186). On the Marquesas, the juice was used for bleaching cloth and for the external treatment of skin diseases (Langdon 1996a:187-188). Englert (1974:192) gives marikuru also as the name of "a white clay", but according to Métraux (1940:17) the white color substance was extracted from the shrub's rotten stumps. Although Englert (1939:197) was told that it was applied as face paint by the neru, it seems possible that it was not a paint but some sort of bleaching paste or skin care.

Fig. 8

Soapberries (marikuru)


(1) The neru texts are referred to by the first letter of the name of the researcher who recorded and/or published it: B(arthel); C(ampbell); E(nglert); G(eiseler); H(eyerdahl); K(noche); M(étraux); R(outledge); T(homson), followed by a serial number. The respective webpages can be found under "Songs of the neru".  


In pre-missionary Easter Island culture there existed an initiation cult which involved the seclusion of children for a prolonged period of time to whiten their skin and fatten their body. Compared to the descriptions of the birdman ritual very little information has been recorded of these so-called neru. They are not mentioned in the early ethnological reports of Eyraud, Roussel, Palmer, Gieseler, or Thomson. When the first information is gathered at the beginning of the 20th century, the ritual dimension of the custom appears to have been forgotten. Routledge, for example, only mentions young people preparing for certain feasts by staying indoors for a long time "to get their complexions good" (1919:235). The uncertainty whether the seclusion of the neru had to be interpreted as part of a ritual belief system or as a purely aesthetic measure, can be observed very clearly in the writings of Métraux who first stated in his "Ethnology of Easter Island" (1940:104) that the children "were isolated to become white and stout", but later changed this position in his "Easter Island – A Stone Age Civilization in the Pacific" (1957:109-110): "... tradition does not refer to a fattening diet. There is nothing in the surviving recollection of the neru to suggest that it was a custom dictated by religion; on the contrary, a few allusions in a poem and a story stress the charms of these neru and imply that their confinement increased their beauty."

Métraux was both mistaken in his estimate of the available material and in his evaluation of the nature of the custom. Although the rapid population decline and the cultural transformation in the second half of the 19th century must have erased much detailed information, oral traditions nevertheless preserved a remarkable amount of material on the neru, especially in a substantial collection of songs. A number of these were collected by the early visitors, most importantly the texts called Atua matariri and He timo te akoako, but these were not identified as having to do with the ritual seclusion of children. Others were collected by Métraux himself, but he too failed to notice the references to the neru. Another important opportunity to gain a deeper insight was missed by him when he did not bother to investigate "two caves in Poike" that were pointed out to him and "which were said to have been inhabited by neru" (1940:104).

Englert who took up residence on Easter Island in 1935, a few months after the Franco-Belgian expedition, was the first to thoroughly examine these caves. On the wall of the one called 'Ana O Keke he encountered an elaborate set of petroglyphs. This more than 4m long mural with its intricated designs not only suggests that the cave of the neru was an important cult site, it also contains a number of figures that stand in obvious relation to the glyphs of the rongorongo script. It is for this reason that the relevant material on the neru from traditions, songs, and petroglyphs will be collected and discussed here and that an attempt will be made to reconstruct some of the features of this enigmatic rite de passage.

Fig. 1

The petroglyphs at 'Ana O Keke