The Lost Script of Rapa Nui - 9 minutes read

‘Strange hieroglyphs’: rongorongo inscription, Easter Island. George Holton/Science Photo Library
‘Strange hieroglyphs’: rongorongo inscription, Easter Island. George Holton/Science Photo Library

Hidden away in a nondescript building on the outskirts of Rome, there is a wooden tablet from Easter Island, more remarkable and mysterious than any of its famous statues. Reputedly found by two missionaries in 1870, it is a fragment of a wooden oar, less than a metre in length, covered in strange hieroglyphs. On each side, there are eight lines of text, consisting of almost 2,000 glyphs; but where the inscription begins and ends is anyone’s guess. Though presumably expressing something in the Rapa Nui language, no one knows what it says – and, in all likelihood, no one ever will.

Known to specialists as Tahua, the tablet is one of just 25 surviving examples of rongorongo, the script once used by the Rapa Nui people. All written on pieces of wood, these are generally in poor condition and are held in a variety of collections around the world. But there is enough to see that, as scripts go, rongorongo is unusual. It consists of a dizzying number of pictographic characters, depicting birds, animals, plants, anthropomorphic figures, geometric shapes and everyday objects. These are arranged in horizontal lines, but every other line is written upside-down, a style known as reverse boustrophedon. This means that anyone reading the texts would have had to turn them through 180 degrees at the end of each line.  


What makes rongorongo even more unusual is its peculiar – and elusive – history. When the first Europeans came to Easter Island, after its ‘discovery’ in 1722, they didn’t see any sign of it. Although James Cook and Jean-Francois de Galaup both made a careful study of the inhabitants and their homes, their accounts said nothing about any written texts. It was not until December 1864 that anyone seems to have noticed it; and by then, it seemed to be everywhere. In a letter to his superior, the French missionary Eugène Eyraud remarked that in every house, there were ‘tablets of wood and staffs covered in many kinds of hieroglyphic characters’.

Yet it was also already being forgotten. According to oral tradition, knowledge of rongorongo was restricted to a class of priests known as tangata rongorongo; and there is some indication that, before Eyraud’s visit, they had been kept in special houses, where clans gathered to hear them read or recited. In December 1862, however, Peruvian slavers had raided the island, carrying off as much as half the island’s population. Most, if not all, tangata rongorongo were taken away to South America, along with the bulk of their texts. Then, in 1867, tuberculosis struck. The mortality was catastrophic. By one estimate, barely 200 Rapa Nui survived – leaving almost no one with even a passing familiarity with the script. 

Lost in translation

Rongorongo quickly became a relic of the past. When, in 1868, the Bishop of Tahiti, Florentin-Étienne (‘Tepano’) Jaussen, was given a small tablet covered in rongorongo, he asked a priest on the island to collect as many as he could. But there were only a handful left. Later scholars speculated that, since there was no one left who could understand rongorongo, the Rapa Nui no longer saw any value in the wooden tablets and simply used them as firewood, or else wound their fishing lines around them. According to Rapa Nui sources, some tablets were burned on the orders of Christian missionaries, most likely because of their ‘pagan’ associations.

Jaussen was not deterred. Though the Rapa Nui priests had disappeared, he hoped that memories of the readings were fresh enough that someone might be able to provide him with a key. At some point between 1869 and 1874, he tracked down a Rapa Nui labourer called Metoro Tau’a Ure, who claimed to remember certain texts. Together, they worked on four tablets – Metoro ‘reciting’ and Jaussen translating into French. But it proved to be a red herring. Metoro, it turned out, was just guessing. He read the script in random directions and translated four or five different glyphs as the same word. Not that Jaussen was much better. His French version was riddled with errors, ranging from simple misunderstandings to outright absurdities.

The idea of a ‘human Rosetta Stone’ was not unreasonable, though. In 1886, an American, William Thomson, tried again. As luck had it, he came across Ure Vaeiko, ‘one of the patriarchs of the island’, who professed ‘to have been under instruction in the art of hieroglyphic reading at the time of the Peruvian visit, and claim[ed] to understand most of the characters’. When Thomson tried to persuade him to translate two tablets he had purchased, Ure refused ‘on the grounds that it had been forbidden by the priests’ and was so outraged by Thomson’s subsequent badgering that he ‘took to the hills’. Only after Ure was plied with rum was he finally won round. Yet though his ‘translation’ seemed fluent, it proved to be nonsense. His words obviously had no relationship to the glyphs and, when a photograph of one tablet was substituted with that of another, ‘the same story was continued without the change being noticed’. Even Thomson had to admit that the last living links with rongorongo had been irrevocably broken. 

Writing or proto-writing?

Since then, all hopes of decipherment have hinged on the tablets alone. This is not, on the face of it, an insuperable obstacle. It is certainly not unprecedented for texts written in an unknown script to be deciphered in isolation. In 1952, for example, the amateur linguist Michael Ventris successfully demonstrated that Linear B is an early form of Greek, without the benefit of any parallel texts in other scripts or languages.

But what makes rongorongo so difficult is that we do not know what sort of script it is. No one is quite sure whether it is a form of proto-writing, or a fully fledged writing system. If the former, are the glyphs pictograms (designed to be read like panels in a comic-strip) or mnemonic ‘cues’, each triggering a different memory? If the latter, is the script ideographic (where each glyph represents a single concept), phonetic (where signs stand for specific sounds), or a mixture of the two?  

Nor, indeed, are its origins any clearer. Although the surviving rongorongo tablets were all found on Easter Island, no one knows where the script came from. According to oral tradition, the first king, Hotu Matu’a, brought several tablets to the island from Hiva, somewhere to the west. This has led some to suggest that it was imported from Polynesia. But since there was no Polynesian script which could have inspired rongorongo, it is difficult to see how this could have been the case. Another theory that it came from South America or the Indus Valley encounters similar problems. This being so, it seems more likely that rongorongo was developed on Easter Island itself. But when? One possibility is that it was in use before the first Europeans arrived and was simply kept secret from outsiders until the mid-19th century. If true, this would make rongorongo one of the very few scripts known to have been invented independently of any other. Another – equally tantalising – possibility is that it is a more recent innovation. According to this theory, Easter Islanders encountered writing for the first time when the Spanish forced local chiefs to ‘sign’ a treaty of annexation in 1770, and were so impressed that they went on to develop their own script over the decades which followed – only for it later to be destroyed by the very same forces of colonialism from which it sprang.  

Shards of meaning

Several attempts at decipherment have been made since the 1950s. Each has been based on looking for patterns in the glyphs and guessing what they might evoke. The results have not always been all that reliable. In fact, most have been downright ludicrous. But a few shards of meaning have nevertheless been glimpsed.

The first meaningful steps were taken in 1956 by two Russian scholars, Nikolai Butinov and Yuri Knorozov. They were looking at a small tablet in Santiago when they noticed a pattern which looked exactly like the sort of thing you’d expect to see in a genealogy. Every block of three glyphs began with the same symbol, perhaps standing for a title; then there came a ‘name’; and finally a ‘patronymic’, with a regular, tail-like suffix. Two years later, Thomas Barthel took another leap forwards. A German linguist with an encyclopaedic bent, he not only compiled the very first catalogue of rongorongo glyphs, but also spotted that two and a half lines of the so-called Mamari tablet – now kept in Rome – seemed to resemble a lunar calendar. And that was just the half of it. According to the French scholar Jacques Guy, Barthel had most likely identified not just a calendar, but an astronomical manual of sorts, used to calculate when intercalary nights needed to be added to a normal month.

Then there is Steven Fischer, a New Zealand linguist who also claims to have deciphered the Phaistos Disk. In 1995, Fischer argued that the inscription on a staff, also in Santiago, looked like a Rapa Nui procreation chant known as the Atua-Mata-Riri – albeit only if you accept some rather sketchy interpolations and ignore a few nonsensical lines.

Each of these decipherments has been criticised; and they each make different assumptions about the type of script rongorongo is. Even the most convincing reading of a single tablet has failed to shine any real light on the others. But even if they are only partially right, they do give some indication of the sort of texts rongorongo may have been used to write. Through the gloom of the centuries, we can discern something about written culture in Rapa Nui society, and the mental world of those who could read. Yet even as we glimpse dim shadows of rongorongo’s meaning, we see all too clearly how much we have lost from a once rich culture. Records of the past, rituals for the present, even hopes for the future – all have vanished into time’s abyss. 

Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His latest book, Machiavelli: His Life and Times, is now available in paperback.

Source: History Today Feed