The Bishop questioned the Rapanui wise man, Ouroupano Hinapote, the son of the wise man Tekaki [who said that] he, himself, had begun the requisite studies and knew how to carve the characters with a small shark’s tooth. He said that there was nobody left on the island who knew how to read the characters since the Peruvians had brought about the deaths of all the wise men and, thus, the pieces of wood were no longer of any interest to the natives who burned them as firewood or wound their fishing lines around them!
A. Pinart also saw some in 1877. [He] was not able to acquire these tablets because the natives were using them as reels for their fishing lines!
— Chauvet 1935:381–382
Easter Island was so renamed after Dutch explore Jacob Roggeveen “discovered” the land on Easter Sunday in 1722. Rapa Nui (“Big Island”) is the indigenous name for the island, its inhabitants, and its language.
Rapa Nui is most famous for its iconic Moai. These are large stone statues that were carved between 1100-1680. There are some 900 Moai scattered across the island; some staring out to sea like guardians of the island, but most face inland, appearing to oversee its inhabitants.
At some point in Rapa Nui’s history, its population diminished rapidly. Until recently, the popular theory to explain this was that the primitive, superstitious natives destroyed their natural resources in order to build the Moai. The prevailing theory is not of ecocide, but of genocide. It appears that contact with colonizers caused the near-annihilation of this ethnic group. In the 19th century, thousands of Rapa Nui were kidnapped by Peruvians and forced into slavery in mines and plantations. Some Rapa Nui were eventually returned to their homeland, but disease and hard labor killed many of them. Those who returned brought back an epidemic of smallpox that decimated the already diminished population. Others emigrated to South America or other Polynesian islands. Today, there are only about 3,000 Rapa Nui left, and it’s been a struggle to piece together their history and preserve their culture.
The indigenous people write the Rapa Nui or Spanish languages using the Latin alphabet, but Rapa Nui once had its own writing system: Rongorongo. In the Rapa Nui language, Rongorongo means to “recite” or “chant”. This writing dates back to the 17th century and its origin is unknown. It may have originated in South America or Polynesia. Alternatively, the script may have been invented on the island. If so, Rongorongo would be one of the world’s few writing systems that evolved independently.
The major discovery of the Rongorongo glyphs occurred in 1868 almost accidentally. The Bishop of Tahiti was given a strange gift of one of these texts (Martin). The text consisted of hieroglyphic writing carved on a small wooden board. However, he was unable to find anyone on Easter Island who understood the language and could decipher the text due to the fact so many of the indigenous people had been lost to disease and slavery.
Although the Rongorongo texts have never been interpreted, cryptographers and historians have determined certain characteristics of the hieroglyphics. The texts were primarily written as historical accounts of the Polynesian people and were not intended to be secret texts. Rather, they chronicled all the historical events of their civilization. At first, the texts were written on paper created from banana leaves; however, after the leaves started to rot, the King had the elite class rewrite the historical texts onto toromiro wood tablets (Martin).
The major impediment to translating the Rongorongo texts is the sheer number of glyphs. The texts contain over one hundred twenty different basic glyphs with almost five hundred other variations on these glyphs (Stollznow). The glyphs include human and animal forms along with geometric shapes. The animals include many birds while the shapes often represent common items the Polynesian people used on Rapa Nui. Since it is a distinctive language and not a text representing other letters, there is not a special key for decoding it.
It is thought that Rongorongo glyphs may represent idiosyncratic mnemonic devices meant to remind the reader of something that is representative of something else, such as using a “knot” symbol used to represent marriage (Martin). This differs from almost all written forms of languages today that have characters representing only sounds or only letters.
Rongorongo texts contain a mixture of symbols and a phonetic alphabet written in a unique style known as reverse boustrophedon (Ager). The text begins in the lower left corner and is read left-to-right. Then the text must be turned one hundred and eighty degrees to read the next line left-to-right, and the process is repeated with each line.
There have been numerous attempts to decipher the rongorongo script of Easter Island since its discovery in the late nineteenth century. As with most undeciphered scripts, many of the proposals have been fanciful. Apart from a portion of one tablet which has been shown to deal with a lunar calendar, none of the texts are understood, and even the calendar cannot actually be read. There are three serious obstacles to decipherment: the small number of remaining texts, comprising only 15,000 legible glyphs; the lack of context in which to interpret the texts, such as illustrations or parallels to texts which can be read; and the fact that the modern Rapanui language is heavily mixed with Tahitian and is unlikely to closely reflect the language of the tablets—especially if they record a specialized register such as incantations—while the few remaining examples of the old language are heavily restricted in genre and may not correspond well to the tablets either.
Since a proposal by Butinov and Knorozov in the 1950s, the majority of philologists, linguists and cultural historians have taken the line that rongorongo was not true writing but proto-writing, that is, an ideographic– and rebus-based mnemonic device, such as the Dongba script of the Nakhi people,[note 1] which would in all likelihood make it impossible to decipher. This skepticism is justified not only by the failure of the numerous attempts at decipherment, but by the extreme rarity of independent writing systems around the world. Of those who have attempted to decipher rongorongo as a true writing system, the vast majority have assumed it was logographic, a few that it was syllabic or mixed. Statistically it appears to have been compatible with neither a pure logography nor a pure syllabary. The topic of the texts is unknown; various investigators have speculated they cover genealogy, navigation, astronomy, or agriculture. Oral history suggests that only a small elite were ever literate, and that the tablets were considered sacred.
lunar Rapa Nui calendar, none of the texts are understood. There are three serious obstacles to decipherment, assuming rongorongo is truly writing: the small number of remaining texts, the lack of context such as illustrations in which to interpret them, and the poor attestation of the Old Rapanui language, since modern Rapanui is heavily mixed with Tahitian and is therefore unlikely to closely reflect the language of the tablets.
The prevailing opinion is that rongorongo is not true writing but proto-writing, or even a more limited mnemonic device for genealogy, choreography, navigation, astronomy, or agriculture. For example, the Atlas of Languages states, “It was probably used as a memory aid or for decorative purposes, not for recording the Rapanui language of the islanders.” If this is the case, then there is little hope of ever deciphering it.[note 19] For those who believe it to be writing, there is debate as to whether rongorongo is essentially logographic or syllabic, though it appears to be compatible with neither a pure logography nor a pure syllabary.