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CAVES AND CAVE-HUNTING
Residential Caves — Caves as Hiding Places for Treasure — Burial Caves.
Easter Island, from its geological formation, is a land of underground cavities; between the harder volcanic strata lie softer deposits, which have been gradually washed away, either by subterraneous streams or, as in certain localities round the coast, by the action of the waves, leaving above and below the more durable substance. There are thus formed grottoes and-crannies innumerable; they were used, as has been seen, for sleeping-places and for burial, and they also came in handy as treasure deposits. Large caves are comparatively rare, though in one district underground ways filled with water extend to a great length, and the whole surface rings hollow to the tread of a horse.
We daily examined such caves and grottoes as came under our notice; and systematically excavated some half-dozen, which had apparently been used in former days as native habitations. Below the floor of one, Mr. Edmunds had already discovered a small chamber walled and roofed with slabs, which the natives said had been used as a place of hiding in cannibal days; but generally the earth deposit is very shallow, and the yields were the same only as those of the houses at Orongo, a few spear heads, bone needles, and sea-shells whose contents had been used for food. There were few objects among the natives which lent themselves to preservation for any length of time; they never made pottery, although there is clay in the island; wooden articles would generally rot, and they had no form of metal. This reflection reconciled us in some degree to what Avas otherwise a disappointment, our inability to reach the most thrilling of the caves, which are half-way up the great sea-cliffs; they can be seen from the ocean, and are known to have been used, but the original track has either been washed away by the encroaching waves or lies in a tumbled mass on the beach below. A special voyage was made round the island in Mana with the object of studying these caves; some of the Expedition went in the yacht, and signalled their situation to a second party, who rode along the coast and placed marks on the cliff as a guide for subsequent exploration. We finally, however, gave up the idea of attempting to reach them; it would have been possible, no doubt, to have done so from the top, with a rope and experienced climbers, but a certain amount of danger would have been inevitably involved, and, considering the smallness of our numbers and the circumstances, we felt it unwise to take the risk of accident. We do not believe, in view of our experience elsewhere, that they are likely to contain anything of material value, but, in any case, they remain unrifled for our successors.
Articles which were considered of value by the owners were kept, not in these larger caves, but in little holes and crannies where they could be easily concealed. This practice still continues, both for legitimate and illegitimate purposes; it made it, for example, impossible to trace the stores which were stolen soon after our arrival. The natives are naturally secretive, and do not confide the whereabouts of their hiding-places, so that when a man dies his hoard is lost. One old leper, who was said to have some five tablets, reported to his friends that when Mr. Edmunds was making a wall on the estate, the men went so near his cache that he was in momentary dread of its discovery, but they passed it by; he died soon after, and all knowledge of it was lost. The most tragic story is the authenticated one of a man who disappeared with his secret store. He had been bargaining with visitors, and went to fetch for sale some of his hidden possessions; he was never heard of again. Presumably some accident happened, and he either fell down a cliff or was buried alive. Sometimes a man on his death-bed will give directions to his son as to where things are hidden, but natural landmarks alter, and this information seems seldom sufficient to enable the place to be recognised; treasure-hunting on Easter Island is therefore a most disappointing pursuit, as we found to our cost. Soon after our arrival a man died in the village who was said to have things hidden among the rocks in a part of the coast not far from the village. His neighbours turned out to dig. We offered high rewards for anything found, which were to be doubled if the objects were left untouched till our arrival on the scene, and we wasted much time ourselves superintending the search, but nothing appeared. A young man volunteered the information that he had a cave on Rano Kao where his father had hidden things, and another half-day was spent in riding to the spot; the whereabouts had only been described generally, and he could not find the place.
Yet another day we rode round the eastern headland to find some stone statues, the locality of which had been confided to Juan by the old man Kilimuti, who was a member of his family. The search was again in vain, and Juan indignantly characterised his ancient relative as "a liar." An interesting, but equally futile, expedition was made to look for a tablet, said to have been hidden by a rongo-rongo man near Anakena; the cave in this case proved to have an entrance like a well, artificially built up, and to be a long, natural, subterranean chamber. There were certain traces which might have been those of decayed wood, but nothing more. We subsequently discovered that this sort of thing is usual; the natives possess, not "castles in Spain," but caves in certain localities which they speak of definitely as "theirs," but which are quite as reluctant to materialise as any southern chateau.
Mr. Edmunds assured us, with amused sympathy, that his initial experiences and disillusionment had been precisely similar to our own. The natives themselves, nevertheless, continue to hunt with undiminished zeal for these hidden articles, whose value is well known; it is the one form of work which they enjoy. Rumour had come from Tahiti, shortly before we reached the island, that articles were hidden in a recess in the coast not far from the Cannibal Cave; the whole place was dug over and ransacked by treasure-hunters from the village, without result so far as we ever heard.
Caves were frequently used as places of burial. Generally, as in the case of Ko Tori, an isolated corpse was placed in a grotto, but on Motu Nui we came across two subterranean chambers which had been definitely prepared as vaults. One of these had obviously not been visited for some time, as a considerable amount of clearance had to be effected before it could be reached. The entrance proved to be a small, properly constructed doorway, two feet high and eleven inches in width, from which a short passage descended at a sharp angle. To wriggle down this narrow way felt much like a rabbit going into a burrow. The cave below proved to be a circular vault, under ten feet in diameter. Four corpses lay side by side on the floor, while a fifth had been hurriedly shoved in, head foremost, through the doorway above. The ceiling and walls were artificially made and covered with white pigment. On the walls were three heads, carved in relief, the only ones encountered; they were adorned with touches of red paint. The one which was best wrought was twenty inches in length, and projected some two to three inches from the surface of the wall; it had a pronounced "imperial." The sides of the cave were also adorned with incised drawings of birds. In order to copy these carvings by the light of a small candle, it was necessary to encamp among the damp mould of the floor in contact with the remains of the dead. The proceeding felt not a little gruesome, even to a now hardened anthropologist, and the return to daylight was very welcome.
The other cave on the islet was very similar, but smaller in size, and the carvings were not so good. The corpses which it contained had evidently been buried in tapa. No information of special interest was forthcoming to account for these burials on Motu Nui; if they were associated with any particular family or class the fact has been forgotten.
The custom is said to have existed of enclosing such articles as chisels and fish-hooks in the wrappings of a corpse, and it is recorded that the bird-man's egg sometimes accompanied him to his last home; the idea also of placing her prie-Dieu in Angata's grave seemed to be a survival of such a practice. With the one exception, however, of the beads in the canoe-shaped ahu, we never found any objects with the dead. The natives who were generally most anxious to reach the inaccessible caves in the hope of treasure, felt no interest in one which can be seen from below to have a wall across the mouth, and which was said to be a place of burial; they considered that it would contain nothing of value. It seems therefore probable that belongings buried with the deceased were speedily stolen and have not been available in the memory of this generation. It is difficult to suppose that any fear of punishment here or hereafter would deter an Easter Islander from appropriating any such article for which he had a fancy.
There may still be accidental discoveries in grottoes of forgotten hoards, or a few things treasured in this way by old men may be disclosed, but personally we are persuaded that the secret of this land must be sought elsewhere than in its caves.