In 1864, the French lay missionary Eugène Eyraud -- the first known non-Polynesian resident of Earth's most isolated inhabited island, Easter Island or Rapanui -- reported in a letter to his superior that he had seen there "in all the houses" hundreds of tablets and staffs incised with thousands of hieroglyphic figures [Figure 1]. Two years later, only a small handful of these incised artefacts were left. Most rongorongo, as the unique objects were subsequently called, had by then been burnt, hidden away in caves, or deftly cannibalized for boat planks, fishing lines, or honorific skeins of human hair. The few Rapanui survivors of recent slave raids and contagions evidently no longer feared the objects' erstwhile tapu or sacred prohibition.
When Eugène Eyraud died of tuberculosis on Rapanui four years later in 1868, his fellow missionaries there, who had arrived only in 1866, knew nothing of the existence of incised tablets and staffs on the island. Rongorongo comprised the Easter Islanders' best-kept secret. Rapanui's rongorongo script comprises one of the world's most fascinating writing systems. This is principally because rongorongo is Oceania's only indigenous script that predates the twentieth century and because it represents one of the world's most eloquent graphic expressions. Like the Indus Valley script of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa of approximately 2000 BC, or the Etruscan writing of central and northern Italy of the first millennium BC, rongorongo has also been, until very recently , one of the world's very few undeciphered writing systems.
Most of Rapanui'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 artefact 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 Rapanui inscriptions might reveal the ancient origins of his Polynesian converts, Bishop Jaussen soon amassed the largest single collection of choice rongorongo artefacts. The word of rongorongo's existence spread to Santiago, Chile, and from there to Europe. Almost overnight, rongorongo became the object of fervid scientific attention, that unique cerebral puzzle that captivated and challenged the keenest minds of the day, including the famous British zoologist Thomas Huxley in 1870. Natural scientists, historians, epigraphers, anthropologists, linguists -- all waxed ardent to read the unreadable.
The rongorongo fever raged for decades.
It was solely because of rongorongo that the famous Russian natural scientist Miklukho-Maklai visited Rapanui, Mangareva, and Tahiti in 1871 while underway to his historic two-year sojourn on New Guinea. In 1914 and 1915, the British husband and wife team of Scoresby and Katherine Pease Routledge believed one of the primary motivations of their historic Mana Expedition to Rapanui lay in the search for more rongorongo artefacts and for the true origins of the Easter Island script. Rongorongo also inspired the widely publicized Franco-Belgian Expedition to the island in 1934 and 1935, led by the famous Swiss anthropologist Alfred Métraux. Rapanui's rongorongo embraces much more, however, than an object of scientific investigation. As Paul Bahn and John Flenley have recently written in their impressive tome Easter Island, Earth Island, rongorongo has ever been "the one genuine mystery that remains from the island's past."
The word "mystery", though in recent years perhaps exploited to banality in conjunction with things Rapanui, holds well in regard to rongorongo . How old are these remarkable incised artefacts from Polynesia's ultimate frontier? Where do the rongorongo inscriptions come from? Who created them? What do they say? Can we perhaps learn something from them about the early colonization of Polynesia?
During the past seven years of full-time research on the subject, I have been convinced by the cumulative evidence that rongorongo was a rather recent phenomenon on Easter Island. In 1770 the Spanish, only the second foreign visitors to the island, drafted a written proclamation of annexation which, during a formal ceremony, they encouraged through sign language local Rapanui elders to "sign". When these Rapanui elders drew on the white foolscap their queer marks in pen and ink, as requested -- apparently in witless imitation of the Spaniards' 18th-century flourishes -- they appeared to sense the foreign mana, the spiritual power, that resided in this wonder of writing, the coupling of human speech to graphic art. One must appreciate that, as far as we know, no other Oceanic people at the time possessed an indigenous writing system. Indeed, there was no need for one. Once the Spanish had left Easter Island the same day, never to return, the Rapanui people apparently attempted to invoke these aliens' powerful mana in similar fashion by incising, in wood, linear series of small contour glyphs. For these glyphs, they employed various motifs drawn from the inventory of Easter Island's rock art, which is today generally regarded to be Polynesia's richest. Consequently, Easter Island's unique writing system ultimately owes its inspiration, linearity, and reading direction to European contact. However, rongorongo's glyphs, internal mechanism, texts, and ritual use were wholly the product of the Rapanui genius.
Rongorongo evidently flourished for only about three generations, from the 1770s or 1780s up to the mid-1860s, when Rapanui society imploded. The names of over a hundred rongorongo experts have survived, along with many accounts of pre- missionary rongorongo rites and customs that were still in living memory in the second decade of the twentieth century. Without doubt rongorongo constituted one of the most important social phenomena on Rapanui in the first half of the nineteenth century. It was as if, once the island's unique statue-making phase had ceased only a little over one century earlier, the people of Easter Island had poured their collective genius into the composition and manufacture of hundreds of equally phenomenal bois parlants or "talking boards," as nineteenth-century scholars were wont to call them.
There remain today only 25 known authentic artefacts 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. Rapanui itself no longer possesses a single authentic rongorongo artefact. Each surviving artefact displays between 2 glyphs and 2,320 glyphs. There are over 14,000 glyphs in the entire rongorongo corpus.
The past has seen many different attempts at reading Rapanui's rongorongo inscriptions. In the mid- nineteenth century, when the artefacts had just been discovered, several scholars eagerly questioned those few surviving Rapanui to determine whether they possessed first-hand knowledge of the script. Of particular interest were those Rapanui living in Tahiti who claimed to have enjoyed a rudimentary training in one of Easter Island's so-called "rongorongo schools." However, not one reliable reading of a rongorongo tablet by a Rapanui informant was forthcoming.
A grand search was then undertaken by various scholars in several countries to find a script that might be related to rongorongo . With this method, it was hoped that the known sound values of this related script might furnish the "key" to reading the unknown Easter Island script. In the 1930s the world was stunned by the claim of a Hungarian scientist living in Paris that Easter Island's rongorongo had derived from the Indus Valley script of approximately 2000 BC. The "Indus Valley Hypothesis," as it came to be known, was of course eventually silenced by those remindful of the realities of time and distance -- 4,000 years and nearly half-way round the world -- but one should note that the triumph of reason in this celebrated case tarried a decade and a half. Other self- proclaimed "experts" in the age of anthropological Diffusionism pontificated that rongorongo had evolved from ancient Chinese writing; or from the pre-Inca writing of Peru, Thor Heyerdahl's bailiwick; or from ancient Hebrews, Phoenicians, Germans, Vikings, and many more. Others were convinced that rongorongo represented a vestige of the once magnificent library of the so-called "lost continent of Lemuria." In the 1960s and thereafter, we have often been informed that, like Easter Island's stone statues themselves, the celebrated moai, rongorongo had been carved on the island by the laser beams of visiting extraterrestrials. However, it eventually became evident to all but the incorrigible that rongorongo was in fact a Rapanui orphan. There was no scriptural relative, living or otherwise. By the middle of the twentieth century many reputable would-be decipherers of the Easter Island script were despairing in their publications of ever being able to read the "one genuine mystery that remains from the island's past."
This was when modern science entered the picture.
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 Tübingen 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 Métraux 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.
But what did the rongorongo inscriptions actually say? Many interesting speculations were offered in the 1950s and 1960s, principally by Barthel in Tübingen and several researchers in Leningrad. But, in the end, the inscriptions remained as mute as Easter Island's moai.
However, during my own intensive investigation of the Easter Islandscript -- one that has involved examining nearly every rongorongo inscription in situ and completing the first comprehensive documentation of the entire rongorongo phenomenon -- the script's "Rosetta Stone" hove into sight. This was the "Santiago Staff," a wooden sceptre measuring almost five feet in length and weighing nearly five pounds that had been obtained by the Chilean navy on a historic visit to Rapanui in 1870. Displaying approximately 2,320 incised glyphs the "Santiago Staff" is the longest rongorongo inscription that survives.
It is also the most stunning rongorongo artefact. When the newly converted Christian Rapanui were handing the "Staff" to the Chilean officers, they pointed at the sky and then at the "Staff", whereby the officers immediately gained the impression that, as their commander later wrote: "these hieroglyphs recalled something sacred."
Now science can confirm this.
The "Santiago Staff" is the only rongorongo artefact that marks textual divisions, revealing 103 vertical lines at odd intervals [Figure 2]. Each glyph to the right of a vertical line -- that is, each glyph commencing one of these textual divisions -- displays a phallic suffix [Figure 3]. Hereby , one must appreciate two things: first, that rongorongo, in apparent imitation of Western writing, reads from left to right, as Rapanui informants claimed over a hundred years ago and as the internal analysis of the inscriptions has since confirmed; and second, that the suffix was identified as a phallus by a Rapanui informant already in the 1870s. Further on the "Staff", within each division bordered by one of these vertical lines one can see that nearly every third glyph bears such a phallic suffix [Figure 4]. No division ends with a phallus-bearing glyph [Figure 5]. No penultimate glyph displays a phallus [Figure 6]. No division has less than three glyphs [Figure 7]. And almost all divisions comprise multiples of three [Figure 8]. What does all this mean?
It means that the underlying text of the "Santiago Staff" possesses a basic triad structure, or repeated groupings of three glyphs each. The first glyph of each of these triads must display a phallus.
Two further rongorongo tablets reveal an identical structure, displaying a similar phallic suffix on nearly every third glyph but now lacking the vertical division markers of the "Staff": the reverse of the "Small Santiago Tablet" [Figure 9] and the one legible side of "Honolulu Tablet 1" [Figure 10]. The internal identification of such glyphic triads on three separate rongorongo artefacts allowed me to suggest the formula X1YZn as the abstracted statement of their long-hidden message [Figure 11] . With this, X represents the glyph bearing the phallus, superlinear 1 indicates the phallus, Y is the second glyph of a triad, Z is the third glyph of a triad, and n is the constant, denoting unspecified repetition of the triad structure.
A subsequent external confirmation of this structural discovery then enabled me to put sound to sign.
In 1886 the Rapanui elder Daniel Ure Va`e Iko, when requested by visiting American naval officers to perform a traditional rongorongo chant of Easter Island, offered `Atua Mata Riri or "God Angry Eyes." The traditional, though linguistically contaminated, chant lists 41 fanciful copulations and their issues using a repetitive rhetorical structure, such as: "Land copulated with the fish Ruhi Paralyser: There issued forth the sun." `Atua Mata Riri also reveals the same triad structure as identified in the three rongorongo inscriptions, X1YZ [Figure 12] . The copulator is X. The phrase "copulated with" is superlinear 1. Thepartner of the copulation is Y. And the issue of the copulation is Z.
In fact, X1YZ epitomises the rhetorical structure of most ancient Polynesian procreation chants and genealogies. That is, someone or something copulates with someone or something and the result of the copulation is the offspring, which can be a child, plant, fish, bird, or even the sun. For all ancient Polynesians, that is how the universe with its multitude of manifestations originated in the first place.
An alternative structure recognised in Daniel Ure Va`e Iko's procreation chant appeared to support this first breakthrough in reading Rapanui's rongorongo [Figure 13]. The procreation chant also displays the structure X1YX, whereby the offspring of the copulation is the same as the procreator, for example: "Ant copulated with Pura Yam: There issued forth the ant." This X1YX alternative structure is also common in the rongorongo inscriptions [Figure 14]. The three rongorongo inscrip tions repeating this X1YZ or X1YX structure would, then, in view of Daniel Ure Va`e Iko's traditional rongorongo procreation chant or cosmogony, have to be similar procreation chants or cosmogonies. That is, glyph X copulates with glyph Y, as the phallus indicates, and the issue of this copulation is glyph Z or another glyph X.
This initial discovery indicated that Rapanui's rongorongo script is a mixed writing system: it is both logographic and semasiographic. It is logographic in that glyph X represents a physical object: It's a single word or group of words that the glyph identifies (like "`Atua Mata Riri", or God Angry Eyes, as we hear in the 1886 chant). But the script is also semasiographic in the sense that the phallus which is attached to the logographic X glyph affords visual communication directly -- without recourse to language -- of the verbal phrase "copulated with." Here, the phallic suffix, superlinear 1, does not represent an object -- like X, Y, or Z -- but an act.
Advancing the decipherment along these lines, I was able to provisionally decipher and phonetically read, among others, one significant triad of main glyphs from the "Santiago Staff": "All the birds copulated with fish: There issued forth the sun" [Figure 15]. This procreation is conspicuously similar to one of the 41 procreation items mentioned by Daniel Ure Va`e Iko in 1886: "Land copulated with the fish Ruhi Paralyser: There issued forth the sun" [Figure 16]. In August of 1994 this initial breakthrough in reading Easter Island's rongorongo script was announced at a scientific congress in Holland, where it received the enthusiastic endorsement of the world's leading Austronesian linguists.
One year later, a second development indicated that this discovery, which had initially been limited to only the three artefacts of the "Santiago Staff," the "Small Santiago Tablet," and "Honolulu Tablet 1 (3629)," actually comprised the successful decipherment of nearly all the rongorongo inscriptions -- if by decipherment one means the discovery of the key to reading a hitherto unreadable script. I found that the same procreation triad from the "Santiago Staff" -- "All the birds copulated with fish: There issued forth the sun" -- was reproduced on a rongorongo tablet ... but in a version that, unlike the "Staff", lacked the phallus on the X glyph [Figure 17]. A subsequent study has shown numerous examples of procreation triads from all three of the previously mentioned artefacts -- that is, those that display the phallus -- reproduced on other rongorongo artefacts that omit the phallus. Sometimes the X- and Y-glyphs of a procreation combine to produce an offspring that incorporates both parents or elements of both [Figure 18]. Perhaps the strongest evidence for procreation triads lacking the phallus on their X-glyph was the frequent segmentation of most rongorongo inscriptions into natural groupings of three glyphs [Figure 19]. This segmentation often reveals the structure XYXn that repeats the sire as the issue of the mating [Figure 20]. This means that nearly all of the 25 surviving rongorongo inscriptions are procreation chants, generally of the type X1YZ or XYZ -- that is, inscriptions consisting of many groupings of three glyphs each, with or without a phallus on their initial or X glyph. Each triad or grouping of a procreation chant repeats the rhetorical formula in the Old Rapanui language: X ki `ai ki roto `o Y: ka p> te Z or "X copulated with Y: there issued forth the Z." One is now in a position to provide such provisionally translated texts as [Figure 21]: "All the birds copulated with the sea: there issued forth the shellfish"; "The many birds copulated with the (kind of) birds: there issued forth the fish"; "The shark copulated with the male deity: there issued forth the shark"; and "The plural male deities copulated with the (qualified) female deities: there issued forth the (kind of) bird." Only minor rongorongo inscriptions -- such as one line or two glyphs on a pectoral, one line on a paddle, isolated phrases on a "Birdman" statuette, various glyphs on skulls and so forth -- appear to comprise something other than a procreation chant.
Because all of these rongorongo artefacts have survived at random , one can assume that most of those "hundreds" of staffs and tablets that the Frenchman Eugène Eyraud saw on Rapanui in 1864 embraced procreation chants.
Easter Island's rongorongo script was not a mere aide memoire to assist in the recalling of previously memorized songs. The ancient Rapanui priests read the rongorongo , and they creatively composed in it.
Now we can read it too.
Despite these minor critiques, the reader is heartily encouraged to read Jacques Guy's excellent rongorongo studies in the various scholarly journals, which represent a true and lasting contribution to professional rongorongo scholarship."
The only comprehensive documentation of Easter Island's rongorongo script is the monograph:
Fischer, Steven Roger, 1997. Rongorongo, the Easter Island Script: History, Traditions, Texts. Oxford Studies in Anthropological Linguistics 14. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
A popular account of the decipherment of the rongorongo script has
recently appeared in:
Fischer, Steven Roger, 1997. Glyphbreaker: A Decipherer's Story. New York: Copernicus/ Springer-Verlag.
An adequate summary of the rongorongo phenomenon, that details the
subject up to the end of the 1930s, can be read in:
Métraux, Alfred, 1940. Ethnology of Easter Island. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 160. Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum Press.
Foreign-language summaries of particular interest include:
Barthel, Thomas S., 1958. Grundlagen zur Entzifferung der Osterinselschrift. Abhandlungen aus dem Gebiet der Auslandskunde 64, Reihe B, vol. 36. Hamburg: Cram, de Gruyter & Co.
Fedorova, Irina, 1986. Ieroglificheskie teksty ostrova Paskhi i `chtenija' Metoro (materialy dlja deshifrovki), in Yuri V. Knorozov (ed.), Drevnie sistemy pis'ma, etnicheskaya semiotika. Moscow: Nauka, pp. 238-54.
Fedorova, Irina, 1995. Doshchechki kokhau rongorongo iz kunstkamery. St. Petersburg: Nauka.
Heine-Geldern, Robert von, 1938. Die Osterinselschrift. Anthropos, 33: 815-909.
Imbelloni, José, 1951. Las `Tabletas parlantes' de Pascua, monumentos de un sistema gráfico indo-oceánico. Runa (Buenos Aires), 4: 89-177.
Jaussen, Florentin Étienne (Tepano), 1893. L'Ile de Pâques, historique - écriture, et répertoire des signes des tablettes ou bois d'hibiscus intelligents. Posthumously edited by Ildefonse Alazard. Paris: Leroux. 32 pages.
Figure 1. The rongorongo tablet "Mamari" (RR 2).
Figure 2. On the "Santiago Staff" textual divisions are marked by vertical lines at odd intervals, as here in line 8: