"In 1868 newly converted Easter Islanders send to Tepano Jaussen, Bishop of Tahiti, as a token of respect, a long twine of human hair, wound around an ancient piece of wood. Tepano Jaussen examines the gift, and, lifting the twine, discovers that the small board is covered in hieroglyphs."
The bishop, elated at the discovery, writes to Father Hippolyte Roussel on Easter Island, exhorting him to gather all the tablets he can and to seek out natives able to translate them. But only a handful remain of the hundreds of tablets mentioned by Brother Eyraud only a few years earlier in a report to the Father Superior of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart. Some say they were burnt to please the missionaries who saw in them evil relics of pagan times. Some say they were hidden to save them from destruction. Which side should we believe? Brother Eyraud had died in 1868 without having ever mentioned the tablets to anyone else, not even to his friend Father Zumbohm, who is astounded at the bishop's discovery. Monsignor Jaussen soon locates in Tahiti a laborer from Easter Island, Metoro, who claims to be able to read the tablets. He describes in his notes how Metoro turns each tablet around and around to find its beginning, then starts chanting its contents. The direction of writing is unique. Starting from the lefthand bottom corner, you proceed from left to right and, at the end of the line, you turn the tablet around before you start reading the next line. Indeed, the orientation of the hieroglyphs is reversed every other line. Imagine a book in which every other line is printed backtofront and upsidedown. That is how the tablets are written!
He is soon disappointed. Metoro's chanting makes little sense: "He is pierced. It is the king. He went to the water. The man is sleeping against blossoming fruit. The posts are set up..." But Mgr Jaussen does not abandon hope and the chants which he patiently writes down, with comments and the corresponding hieroglyphs, will occupy some 230 pages out of the 300 of his notes. This manuscript, alas, was never to be published: the reproduction of the hieroglyphs would have cost far too much. Whereas nowadays.... is there an interested publisher reading this?
Only a list of a few hundred hieroglyphs will ever be published. It is the famous "JAUSSEN LIST" which has been the basis of many an unsuccessful attempt at decipherment.
Is everything from Metoro to be rejected then? Not necessarily. Perhaps Metoro knew only how to "spell out" the hieroglyphs without knowing how to pronounce them, nor what they meant. Just as if, upon being shown the word "cat" you said: "cee, ay, tee", without knowing what it means and how to say it. That would neatly explain why, as reported by some anthropologists, the same informant would read the same tabletdifferently from day to day. Do we not ourselves vary in our spelling usage? We say "capital C" or "uppercase C", we say "zero" or "oh". Americans say "zee", Britons say "zed". Britons say "double ell", Americans "ell, ell". It would also explain how anthropologists reported having substituted a photo of a tablet for another in midrecitation without their informant being in the least frazzled. If you are merely calling out a text, letter by letter (or hieroglyph by hieroglyph), it does not matter what it is, even what language it is in, as long as the alphabet is the same on every page you are shown.
First, this story occurs nowhere in Easter Island nor in Polynesian mythologies, as Fischer himself admits. Second, birds copulating with fish are alien to Easter Island and Polynesian lore, where creators and genitors are gods and goddesses and cultural heroes, not mere animals. Third, "mau" is nowhere attested in the Easter Island language with the meaning "all", but it is a plural marker borrowed from Tahitian, and as such it always precedes the noun (thus one would say "te mau manu", "the birds", not "te manu mau", which means "true bird" or "bird proper" in Tahitian).
Fischer's lack of method does not stop there. In another article, published in the Rapa Nui Journal, he claims to have identified similar copulation stories on "eleven other tablets, all of them lacking the phallic suffix" (my emphasis). In other words, wherever he did not see a phallus, he supplied one.
Each tablet was prepared before carving. Shallow grooves were cut lengthwise, probably using an adze with a blade of shell or of obsidian. They are 10 to 15mm wide, and can be clearly seen in a photo pp.6465 of Catherine and Michel Orliac's excellent little book. The signs themselves were engraved in those grooves, probably with shark teeth or obsidian flakes, as oral tradition has it.
Of the 21 tablets we have, three bear almost exactly the same hieroglyphic text. A fourth one, called "Tahua" or "The Oar" bears only part of that text, and in a very different, more lapidary, style. Indeed this tablet is an oar made of European ash, as were used in the British navy two centuries ago. At the earliest, it could date from the beginning of the eighteenth century, at the latest, from the end of the nineteenth. There must therefore have been then literate Easter Islanders, because this "Oar" is not a mere copy. It looks like a compilation, a digest of earlier texts, lost, except for its beginning, found on those other three tablets (see "On a Fragment of the Tahua Tablet" in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, December 1985).
The overwhelming majority of the hieroglyphs are anthropomorphic. They are little figures, facing you, or sideways; standing with dangling arms; or sitting with their legs sometimes stretched, sometimes crossed; with a hand up, or down, or turned to the mouth; some hold a staff, some a shield, some a barbed string. Some sport two bulging eyes (or are they ears, or coils of hair?); some a huge hooked nose with three hairs on it; some have the body of a bird. The writing often looks like an animated cartoon. You can see the same little fellow repeated in slightly different postures. One tablet shows the same figure in three successive postures, sitting sideways, playing, it seems, with a top. Or is it a potter at the wheel? A jeweller with a drill, making shell beads?
There are also many zoomorphic figures, birds especially, fish and lizards less often. The most frequent figure looks very much like the frigate bird, which happens to have been the object of a cult, as it was associated with MakeMake, the supreme god.
When you compare the tablets which bear the same text, when you analyze repeated groups of signs, you realize that writing must have followed rules. The scribe could choose to link a sign to the next, but not in any old way. You could either carve a mannikin standing, arms dangling, followed by some other sign, or the same mannikin holding that sign with one hand. You could either carve a simple sign (a leg, a crescent) separate from the next, or rotate it 90 degrees counterclockwise and carve the next sign on top of it.
All we can reasonably hope to decipher some day is some two to three lines of the tablet commonly called "Mamari". You can clearly see that they have to do with the moon. We happen to have several versions of the ancient lunar calendar of Easter Island. The most interesting was collected by William Thomson in 1886, whose report was published by the American National Museum in 1889, in a monograph "Te Pito te Henua, or Easter Island". Thanks to Thomson, we know for instance that the night called "kokore tahi" corresponded to 27 November 1886. Using an almanac of 1886 or astronomical software, we can match his list against the actual phases of the moon at the time of his stay on Easter Island, and use this comparison as a key to deciphering the hieroglyphs of the calendar (see " The lunar calendar of Tablet Mamari", Journal de la Société des Océanistes, Paris, 1990). Thomson also collected the names of the months with the corresponding dates in our calendar. By an extraordinary stroke of good luck, the traditional Easter Island year corresponding to 18851886 happened to have 13 months, whereas all other authors reported only 12 months. By calculating the dates of the phases of the moon in 1885 and 1886 we can reconstruct this ancient calendar and, to a certain extent, how it worked, and when the extra month ("embolismic month" in technical jargon) had to be inserted (see "A propos des mois de l'ancien calendrier pascuan", Société des Océanistes, Paris, 1992). Some day, perhaps, someone will discover a tablet the hieroglyphs of which are the names of the months, or which contains the rules for deciding when this thirteenth embolismic month was to be inserted.
I have mentioned failed attempts at decipherment. Many have claimed that the Easter Island hieroglyphs are the spit image of the writing of this or that extinct civilization, from India to the Andes, and made the Easter Islanders their descendants. First, this is untrue. The Easter Island hieroglyphs have a distinct style, unique in the world. Second, this is downright silly. There are not a million different ways of drawing a "mannikin standing", a "fish", a "staff", a "bow", an "arrow". Ask a fouryear old to draw you a "man with a stick" and compare that with the hieroglyphs of Easter Island. You are sure to find a few that look very much like that "man with a stick". Does that make the child an heir to the ancient Easter Islanders?
|About the author:|
Jacques Guy studied Chinese, Japanese and Tahitian at the Ecole Nationale des Langues Orientales Vivantes in Paris and obtained a Ph.D. in linguistics from the Australian National University in Canberra on a then unknown language of Espiritu Santo. Having long redirected his interests to computer science and statistics he has now been for more than ten years a senior scientist in artifical intelligence with the Research Laboratories of Telstra (TELecom auSTRAlia). His main lines of interest are the processing and analysis of raw data considered as a corpus of texts of unknown meaning in an unknown language, and the quantitative properties of information and its transmission.
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Two Systems of Symbolic Writing
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