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Making Their Bones

May 21, 2009 By:
Lauren Kramer, JE Feature
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A captive audience awaits travelers to the caves of Atiu.

Jewish law is pretty clear on the matter of human remains: If you're a Kohen, you don't go anywhere near the deceased. If you're not a Kohen, then a visit to the cemetery is no problem.

But exploring an ancient burial cave filled with skeletal remains -- just for the thrill of it? Not so kosher!

Still, I couldn't resist exploring the dank cave in Atiu, the Cook Island's third-most populous isle. Even the mention of skulls couldn't scare me off, and the first one took my breath away.

As I crouched in the dank cave, my flashlight caught its toothy grimace, the rest of its limbs laid neatly beside it. That first skull took me by surprise. It just seemed too Indiana Jones-like to belong in this century.

As recently as 200 years ago, the Atiuans brought new meaning to the word "cannibal." Highly aggressive warriors, they were known to paddle their canoes to neighboring isles like Mauke and kill off the entire population. Sometimes, perceived enemies were cooked in the umu -- a traditional underground oven -- and feasted on for the next meal.

It wasn't until 1823 that British missionaries ventured cautiously to Atiu. Within a year, they'd persuaded the island's warriors to abandon their cannibalistic ways and become the devout Christians they remain to this day.

The air is heavy with the scent of wild fruit trees as we hike through the thick tropical foliage that grows with such abandon on Atiu's volcanic soil. Hunger is no problem out here, where guavas and breadfruit grow vociferously and coconuts litter the forest floor.

We approach a massive banyan tree, whose tendrils stretch from the uppermost branches some 40 feet high into the ground. At first, it's just like any other banyan. But go a little closer and you'll see the darkness of a crevice that extends from its trunk deep into the earth.

It seems an appropriate place for Rimarau, where about 50 skeletons sit in the darkness, some with ax-shaped holes in their skulls suggesting that their final moments of life were anything but pleasant. Occasionally, there's light in the caves, when Marshall Humphreys, a British immigrant to Atiu, guides flashlight-bearing visitors through them.

Rimarau means burial place of 500, but Humphreys is skeptical. In his three years of guiding tours in this cave, he's never counted more than 50 skeletons. Then again, the temptation of venturing into the cave's narrow, innermost depths are minimal.

Once inside, your voice is reduced to a whisper that acknowledges the sacredness of this site, and the history it contains. No one knows exactly how old its skeletal remains are. They could have sat for just 200 years. But they could also have been there 2,000.

"Visit Atiu, and you're going up in the world!" quips Roger Malcolm, our host at the Atiu Villas and a resident of the island for the past 26 years.

A wealth of knowledge about the natural formation of the island, Malcolm explains how the rest of the Cook Islands are gradually sinking back into the sea. For some inexplicable reason, Atiu is the only island that seems to be rising. It started as a mountain sitting on the ocean floor, and was gradually raised to the surface.

Today, the 120,000-year-old coral that once grew on this submerged mountain sits on its surface. The coral that surrounds the island and is still submerged dates back a mere 8,700 years, he says.

Hiking through the thick, tropical undergrowth that's still dripping from the last rainstorm, we spot the fossils of impeccably preserved giant clams and razor-sharp coral now covered with moss, lichen and ferns. This time, we're en route to the Anatakitaki Caves -- home to 400 swift-like Kopeka birds that are indigenous and unique to Atiu.

What mysteries await travelers there? Find out when we explore the cave in next week's issue.

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