The writing of Easter Island

Rongorongo, the writing system of Easter Island

Just as much an unknown as the moai, rongorongo is the name given to the hieroglyph script found on wooden tablets. In 1864, Eugene Eyraud, the French lay missionary, reported that "all the houses" he had seen hundreds of these tablets and hieroglyph incised staffs7. Four years later and following the death of Eyraud, missionaries could find little evidence of these tablets and staffs. They had been burnt, hidden in caves, cannabalised for planking in fishing boats or for other uses. The once sacred state of these tablets was no longer feared by the population7

Steven Fischer, a researcher and former lecturer at Canterbury University, New Zealand, gives us this description of the script of Easter Island.

"Most of Rapa Nui's rongorongo inscriptions consist of parallel lines of signs or glyphs that represent human figures, birds, fishes, plants, geometrics, and other things. These fingernail-size glyphs were traditionally incised on large battle staffs, driftwood tablets, small wooden "Birdmen" and other statuettes, pectorals, ceremonial paddles, and even human skulls. Rongorongo glyphs also figured among the inventory of special tattoos for the rongorongo experts. On the staffs and tablets, every other line of rongorongo appears upside down; this orientation forces the reader to rotate the artifact 180 degrees at the end of each line of glyphs, evidently to enable continuous reading and to avoid confusing the parallel lines. At a cursory glance, rongorongo offers a fanciful parade of hieroglyphics, and for over 130 years many eminent scholars from many nations have burned the midnight oil in attempting to discover what this hieroglyphic parade celebrates. In 1869 the rongorongo inscriptions were "rediscovered". Their second European discoverer was Tahiti's now legendary Catholic bishop "Tepano" Jaussen. Suspecting that the Rapa Nui inscriptions might reveal the ancient origins of his Polynesian converts, Bishop Jaussen soon amassed the largest single collection of choice rongorongo artifacts. The word of rongorongo's existence spread to Santiago, Chile, and from there to Europe. The keenest minds of the day, including the famous British zoologist Thomas all waxed ardent to read the unreadable.

There remain today only 25 known authentic artifacts incised with rongorongo glyphs. Already in the nineteenth century Polynesia's only indigenous library was broken up and dispersed to museums and institutions as far removed from Easter Island as St. Petersburg, Russia, and the British Museum in London. Rapa Nui itself no longer possesses a single authentic rongorongo artifact. Each surviving artifact displays between 2 glyphs and 2,320 glyphs. There are over 14,000 glyphs in the entire rongorongo corpus.

In the 1950s trained epigraphers commenced in earnest the detailed investigation of rongorongo's internal structure according to the latest techniques of epigraphic science. Here the investigations of the Russian epigraphers in the erstwhile Leningrad and especially of the German ethnologist Thomas Barthel in Tybingen offered important new insights. Barthel was the first to register each rongorongo glyph and to describe the script's formal parameters. He also furnished textual reproductions of nearly all the inscriptions for the first time and was able to demonstrate, building on the work of Alfred Matraux from the late 1930s, that the rongorongo inventory consists of approximately 120 main glyphs that can combine to afford between 1,200 and 2,000 compound glyphs, which then repeat themselves in the inscriptions in significant ways."7

Jacques Guy adds "[over 50 years later] the tablets remain as much of an enigma. Their meaning is unknown, except for two and a half lines of one tablet, which, beyond reasonable doubt, contain a lunar calendar, already identified as such by Barthel in 1958."8

Fischer, in 1995, claimed to have translated other portions of script. He believes the hieroglyphics are "cosmology chants" set down by the islands priests in the 18th century in an attempt to explain creation. He further claims that the script was a very late phenomenon, inspired by a visit from the Spanish in 1770. Studies of 22 tablets, says Fischer, have yielded a "triad" pattern (glyph grouped into sets of three) of hieroglyphics that are believed to be creation tales.

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