Ana Kai Tangata
Ana Kai Tangata is one of the most interesting and accessible caves on the island. Its spectacular location on the seafront, the proximity to Hanga Roa, its cave paintings and the legends that surround it, make it one of the most attractive and visited caves in Rapa Nui.
A confusing name and past
Ana Kai Tangata is a cave of volcanic origin in which the continuous attacks of the sea have eroded lava from the cliff until creating a cavity 10 meters wide, 5 meters high and 15 meters deep. Its opening overlooks the sea, where the waves break with force, but being located above the high tide line, it is easily accessible.
The name of this cave has led to great speculations by the possible translations of the words that form it. In the Rapanui language there is no doubt that the word Ana means “cave” and the word Tangata means “man”. The problem lies in the term Kai, with several possible meanings.
The cave of cannibals?
Generally, Kai is usually translated for “to eat”, with what the literal translation would be “the cave where men are eaten”. Hence Ana Kai Tangata is also known as “the cave of cannibals“. The oral tradition reflects ancient episodes of cannibalism on the island by the champion clan in the competition of the Tangata Manu. This group that resided in Mataveri, celebrated the victory with feasts and banquets that, sometimes, included human victims. Some of these cruel feasts took place in the cave, where they led the unfortunate rivals.
Despite what these legends tell, so far no physical evidence has been found in the excavations, which prove these terrible practices. However, it is not ruled out that they existed, due to the continuous clashes between clans and the shortage of food in the past.
Other variations of this translation would be “the cave where men eat” or even “the cave that eats men” since the great opening of the cavern simulates a huge dark mouth that swallows the people who enter it.
Finally, the word Kai could also mean “gather” or “tell” so it is believed that this cave was used as a meeting place or classroom to teach some kind of knowledge, in fact the dome inside has good acoustic properties.
A final hypothesis, based on the remains found, argues that this cavern was a small boatyard, where “vaka ama” were built, small canoes made with boards sewn together, typical of the time when wood was scarce in the island. This activity is reflected in one of the last scenes of the film Rapa Nui, where Ana Kai Tangata appears with the father of Ramana building the canoe in which the protagonists escape.
The cave paintings of Ana Kai Tangata
Apart from its spectacular location and its unsettling name, Ana Kai Tangata stands out as one of the best places to admire the ancient rock art of Easter Island.
In the inner vault of the cave, about 4 meters high, you can see beautiful cave paintings in red, white and black, which for the most part represent the Manutara or seagull (Sterna fuscata). This migratory bird, which nested on the motu or islets in front of Orongo each spring, was considered sacred and was the main icon of the cult of Tangata Manu or bird-man.
Read more about the Tangata Manu ceremony
The Mataveri sector, where Ana Kai Tangata is located, is closely related to the Orongo Ceremonial Village. It seems that during the month of July, here the groups that participated in the competition of the Tangata Manu settled down. Later, they ascended in procession along the slope of the Rano Kau volcano to Orongo, where the competition was held.
This section was called Te Ara or Te Ao or “The Way of the Command”, in reference to the ritual object that symbolized the power or authority of bosses. In September, when the first egg was captured, the title of bird-man was awarded to the winner, and then the chosen one descended with the Ao (sceptre) in his hand, thus showing his victory and acquired power.
This ancient rite based on the collection the first egg of the manutara, seems to have inspired the motifs found in the cave. The differences in the designs of the paintings indicate that they were made by different authors over time. The artists used vegetable essences and mineral pigments collected from the Vinapu area, mixed with shark fat. Inside the cave you can see a “taheta” or container dug in the rock where they could have prepared and mixed the colors.
The connection between birds and boats
At present, a dozen birds can be distinguished painted red and outlined in white, accompanied by other figures that could represent boats. Some take the form of the classic polynesian canoes or pora and others show European ships with masts.
It is surprising the great number of boats painted in Ana Kai Tangata, only surpassed by the ones found inside the houses of Orongo. This joint representation of boats and birds found both in the cave and in the ritual village, confirms a strong connection between both places.
Researchers suggest that during a certain period of history, islanders considered the European visitors as messengers from beyond, arriving and disappearing in the ocean as well as migratory birds. This curious relationship may have been reinforced by the fact that a large part of the visits of the ships that came to Easter Island coincided with the southern spring and autumn, when the ceremony of the bird-man took place.
The fragility of a unique place
According to the records of several scholars, until the 30’s of last century, the state of conservation of the paintings was quite good. However, due to water leaks from the upper layers and to the harmful effect of sea salt, the pigments have been losing their intensity.
To this deterioration caused by the humidity, it is necessary to add the irreversible loss of large areas of stone slab that were dislodged from the ceiling and the plundering of some fragments carried out by foreign visitors over time. It is likely that these factors, which have reduced the original painted surface to the few samples still appreciated, will contribute in the future to the total disappearance of this important testimony of the past.
Tips for the visit
Ana Kai Tangata has a fantastic location to see the waves crashing on the nearby cliffs. Here you can feel the strength and beauty of the Pacific against the rocks.
To get to the cave you have to go down stairs carved on the cliff, so it is advisable to wear appropriate footwear and warn that the descent may not be appropriate for elderly or with reduced mobility. Once below you can see the paintings of the ceiling, and the photogenic image of the sky and the sea framed by the mouth of the cave against the light.
The entrance must be done with care because there is constant danger of detachment of the slab stones that fall from the ceiling. The waves seem to want to advance and flood the interior, but fortunately for the visitor this does not happen normally. On days when the island is hit by storms, you have to be cautious and avoid risks.
How to get to Ana Kai Tangata
The cave is located in the southern area of Hanga Roa, about 2 km from the center following the coast route leading to the Rano Kau volcano and the village of Orongo. In fact the visit to the cave is included in the itineraries and tours that travel this area of the island.
Read more about Easter Island tours
To arrive by car you should take the Atamu Tekena Avenue until the end, where you turn right towards the sector of Mataveri. Then follow the Policarpo Toro street, leaving behind the runway of the airport to find a small parking located about 100 m after the entrance of the Hotel Iorana.
An alternative, a little longer but more panoramic, is to walk from Hanga Piko along the path that borders the beautiful volcanic cliffs. A few meters before reaching the cave, in front of the Hotel Iorana, there is a natural pool formed between the rocks. Although it is a tempting scenario that invites to cool down, you have to be very careful about the difficult access and the danger of the waves that break against the rocks and that unfortunately have cost the life of some tourist.