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Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

Rongo Rongo Tablets

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Rongorongo, the hieroglyphic script of Easter Island, has remained a mystery since its discovery. For over a hundred years, controversy has raged over the meaning and source of these enigmatic characters. 

In the 1860s, Eugene Eyraud, the first European missionary to work on Easter Island, noted that every house contained wooden tablets covered in a form of writing or hieroglyphics, yet no islander could (or would) explain the symbols' meaning. Today, only a few of the tablets survive. The script is known as rongo-rongo, and the tidy rows of tiny symbols include birds, animals, plants, celestial objects and geometric forms. It is thought that the tablets were classified according to subjects such as hymns, crimes and deaths on the battlefield.

Theories abound about the tablets and their text. Perhaps it isn't a readable script at all, but rather a series of cues for reciting memorised verse. Some theorists believe that the characters are ideographs like Chinese script. Others have even suggested a connection to a similar script from antiquity found in the Indus River valley, in modern Pakistan.

An Overview
Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui or Rapanui, with its statues and with its unique writing system (known as Rongo­rongo), has provided such fertile breeding ground for various crackpot theories, from sunken continents to alien visitors, that a short introduction is necessary.

Easter Islanders are of Polynesian descent, and archaeologists concur to date their arrival around 400 AD. The island was stripped bare of timber by the eighteenth century. Yet in a letter dated December 1864, Brother Eugene Eyraud mentions the existence of hundreds of wooden tablets covered in hieroglyphics. Four years later, Monsignor Jaussen, Bishop of Tahiti, could only recover five tablets. Only twenty­one have survived, scattered in museums and private collections. 

The writing on them is extraordinary. Tiny, remarkably regular glyphs, about one centimeter high, highly stylized and formalized, are carved in shallow grooves running the length of the tablets. Oral tradition has it that scribes used obsidian flakes or shark teeth to cut the glyphs and that writing was brought by the first colonists led by Hotu Matua. Last but not least, of the twenty­one surviving tablets three bear the same text in slightly different "spellings", a fact discovered by three schoolboys of St Petersburg (then Leningrad), just before World War II. 

In 1958 Thomas Barthel made the whole of the Easter Island corpus available in his "Grundlagen zur Entzifferung der Osterinselschrift" ("Bases for the Decipherment of the Easter Island Script"), alas never translated into English. Almost forty years later now the tablets remain as much of an enigma. Their meaning remains 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.

The Discovery of the Tablets
Let us wind the story back to the discovery of the first tablet. I can do no better than quote the excellent little book by Catherine and Michel Orliac, "Des dieux regardent les étoiles" ("Gods gaze at the stars", No.38 in Gallimard's paperback series "Découvertes"):

"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!

Jaussen's Attempt at Decipherment
Mgr Jaussen sits down to the daunting task of writing down Metoro's reading of four tablets in his possession.

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.

Thomas Barthel
Suddenly, in 1958, extraordinary news! In an article of the June issue of Scientific American, entitled "The 'Talking Boards' of Easter Island", a German cryptologist, Thomas Barthel, claims success. But he only gives an overview of the writing system with a short list of signs, their pronunciation and meaning. The much awaited translation of the tablets does not materialize.

Scholars become impatient. In the February 1964 issue of "The American Anthropologist", Mulloy, Skjølsvold and Smith demand of Barthel that he present the translation of at least one tablet. Nothing. A shame, for Barthel had done an excellent job with his "Grundlagen zur Entzifferung der Osterinselschrift". He has invented a numerical code to reference most of the signs and their combinations. He has identified two and a half lines of one tablet which, beyond the shadow of a doubt, contain a lunar calendar. He has included in his book faithful line reproductions of the hieroglyphic text of all the tablets, much easier to use and study than photographs. How come, then, that he was unable to produce the much touted decipherment?

Metoro's Chants
Barthel's Rosetta Stone had been Jaussen's records of Metoro's chants. If you take even only a cursory look at the "JAUSSEN LIST", you soon realize that Metoro was only describing what he saw, a bit as if you showed me the word "shown", and if I were to blather away: "hook (s) in the back of a seat (h) with a hole (o) in it and a pair of buttocks (w), trousers down (n)". Upon which evidence you would set out to decipher Shakespeare's sonnets.

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.

Other Attempts at Decipherment
There have been too many to mention them all here. Two will have to do.

Carroll's Decipherment
In 1892 the Journal of the Polynesian Society published a decipherment by Dr Carroll, a Sydney (Australia) medical doctor, which read very much like H. Rider Haggard's famous novel "She" transported to the Andes: American Indians of the Inca Empire, complete with a priestess, fleeing erupting volcanoes and sundry catastrophes, to end up on Easter Island. The story ran for two issues of the Journal, and, when asked to explain how he had arrived at his translation, and to bring evidence such as lists of hieroglyphs with their meanings, the good doctor seems to have retreated to his Sydney surgery never to be heard of again. Embarrassed silence was then heard from the Journal.

Fischer's Decipherment
In 1995 the Journal of the Polynesian Society published an article by Dr Fischer, where he claimed to have identified the nature of the tablets. They are chants, he says, of the form "So­and­so copulated with So­and­so begetting Such­and­such". Since the announcement of this decipherment has been widely disseminated, from the international tabloid press such as VSD in France to even such a highbrow scientific journal as Nature (18 January 1996 issue), Fischer's claims deserve to be examined a bit more closely than Carroll's.

Fischer's Claim
Fischer has observed that there is a very strong tendency for every third sign on the tablet known as the Santiago Staff to comprise an appendage which he calls a "phallic suffix" (outlined in black and filled in in yellow in the illustration below). He interprets this appendage as a phallus after Thomas Barthel, who himself bases his evidence on Metoro's reading of one hieroglyph as "man with the erect penis" (tangata ure huki). He concludes that there is a clear ternary pattern repeated throughout the Santiago Staff:

  1. some sign with a phallus followed by
  2. some other sign without a phallus followed by
  3. some other sign again without a phallus

Now, in 1886, an enlightened amateur, William Thomson, stayed 11 days on Easter Island during which he collected a wealth of reliable, excellently reported material worthy of the best professionals. Among that material was a recitation, known as "Atua Mata Riri" (God Angry Eyes), after its opening words. It consists of 48 verses, 41 of which tell of such­and­such a god copulating with such­and­such a goddess, from whose union springs such­and­such an animal, plant, or natural phenomenon. Fischer jumps onto the similarity, and concludes without further ado that the first sign of each group of three, the one with a "phallus", is the copulator, the second one the... if I may coin this horrible word, the copulatee, and the third one the offspring. But, firstly, Fischer proposes no decipherment of any part of the Santiago Staff that reads even remotely like any of the 41 verses of "Atua Mata Riri". Secondly, he does propose a decipherment of three signs, but this decipherment is from the linguistic point of view at once a barbarism and a solecism, and from the cultural point of view it is so incompatible with Polynesian oral literature as to be unbelievable.

Fischer's Only Proposed Decipherment
This is: "te manu mau ki 'ai ki roto ki te ika, ka puu te ra'aa" which Fischer translates: "all the birds copulated with the fish, there issued forth the sun". (te: the, manu: bird, mau: all, ki 'ai: copulated, ki roto ki: inside, ika: fish, ka puu: sprang, te: the, ra'aa: sun).

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
Readers familiar with logic will have spotted in Fischer's claimed decipherment the fundamental flaw of reasoning called the fallacy of the excluded middle: dogs have four legs, tables have four legs; therefore tables, like dogs, wag their tails and pee against trees. Likewise the Santiago Staff has signs in groups of three, the recitation has protagonists in groups of three; therefore the Santiago Staff, like "Atua Mata Riri", is a story of how animals, plants and natural phenomena came into existence.

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.

What Then, Do We Know?
Very little. We will probably never know what the tablets mean: too few have survived. Let us then be content with the little of which we can be sure.

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.

Recently, it was reported that Dr. Steven Fischer had successfully deciphered this unique Oceanic "writing". To provide an opportunity to examine varying positions on the subject - an essay on Rongorongo by Steven Fischer, Ph.D. is hereby provided, with a corresponding critique and general overview offered by Jacques Guy, Ph.D.

Essay on the Rongo Rongo Tablets (by Dr. Stephen Fisher)
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.

Reading the rongorongo
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.

Jacques Guy's criticism
In reply to Jacques Guy's criticism about my decipherment of the rongorongo script of Easter Island, I wish to make the following comments on Jacques Guy's allegations:

  1. Guy calls my one cited procreation item (bird-fish-sun) a "story". This is not a story, but only one procreation item out of hundreds of such procreation items on the Santiago Staff.
  2. Guy alleges that this item is, in this form, unknown to ancient Easter Island society. In fact, the 1886 informant Ure Va'e Iko chanted a long list of such procreations that involved not only gods but also plants, animals, fishes, birds, and even heavenly phenomena, including the sun.
  3. Guy claims that the word "mau is nowhere attested in the Easter Island language," and alleges it is a borrowing from Tahitian. Though this is a peripheral point that does not directly involve the decipherment, it must be pointed out that not only is the Old Rapanui word "mau" a direct inheritance from Marquesan "mau" which itself derives from Proto-Polynesian *mahu (and is found in nearly all of the Polynesian languages, not merely Tahitian), but also Old Rapanui "mau" figures as "plural marker" in the first Rapanui dictionary compiled in the 1860s on Easter Island and is also prevalent in the earliest documented Old Rapanui texts from the early 1870s. It regularly occurs both before and after a noun.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, Guy questions the logic behind my associating the groups of three glyphs on the Santiago Staff with the groupings of three subjects in the chant "'Atua Mata Riri." The logic lies in the formal establishment of an epigraphic nexus. Both the Staff and the chant: 1) are pre-missionary products of Easter Island; 2) deal with a pre-missionary oral performance; 3) are associated intimately with the rongorongo phenomenon; 4) were used by the same persons who also commanded the rongorongo; and 5) divide equally and similarly into groupings of three units that repeat often. In view of this, it is both logical and epigraphically permissible to link the phonetic statement of one with the graphic statement of the other. There has occurred no "jump" of logic here, but it is a wholly integrated process of associating evidence and identifying shared structures of related phenomena occurring in a common social and temporal environment.
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.

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We have included Easter Island in some of our specials to the South Pacific, eg. our Kontiki Voyage. Another option is to create your own package to Easter Island by utilizing the seperate travel components, like hotels, flights and excursions on the islands.

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