During the 19th Century, ancient artifacts containing a set of etched symbols were discovered on the world-renowned Easter Island, a small remote island located a few thousand miles west of South America, and famous for the hundreds of giant monolithic anthropomorphic statues called moai. The intricate designs appear to be glyphs, or a form of writing, but the meaning of the glyphs has never been deciphered. Some believe that decoding the mysterious writing could offer answers into what caused the collapse of the ancient Easter Island civilization.
The Rongorongo writing was first discovered by Eugène Eyraud, a lay friar of the Roman Catholic Church, who went to Easter Island as a missionary on January 2, 1864. In an account of his visit, he wrote of his discovery of twenty-six wooden tablets containing the unusual inscriptions:
“In every hut one finds wooden tablets or sticks covered in several sorts of hieroglyphic characters: They are depictions of animals unknown on the island, which the natives draw with sharp stones. Each figure has its own name; but the scant attention they pay to these tablets leads me to think that these characters, remnants of some primitive writing, are now for them a habitual practice which they keep without seeking its meaning.”
The name Rongorongo comes from the Rapa Nui language, which is the native language of Easter Island, and means “to recite, to declaim, to chant out.” The irregularly shaped wooden tablets were weathered, burned, or otherwise damaged when they were found. The glyphs were also found on a chieftain’s staff, a bird-man statuette, and two reimiro ornaments. The glyphs are written in-between lines that run across the tablets. Some tablets are “fluted” with the inscriptions falling within the channels created by the fluting. The Rongorongo images are shaped like humans, animals, plants, and geometric forms. Every symbol that contains a head is oriented with the head facing up, and either facing forward, or profiling to the right. Each symbol is approximately 1 centimeter high. The orientation of the writing is read from left to right, bottom to top. This is known as reverse boustrophedon. According to oral tradition, the tools used to make the carvings were obsidian flakes or small shark teeth.
The age of the tablets is unknown, as very little direct dating has been done, but they are believed to have originated around the 13th Century, around the same time as forest clearing. However, this is merely speculative as the inhabitants of Easter Island may have felled a small number of trees for the specific purpose of creating the wooden tablets. One glyph appears to resemble a palm tree, and is thought to be the Easter Island palm, which disappeared from the island’s pollen record in 1650, suggesting the script must be at least that old.
Deciphering the glyphs has proven difficult. Assuming that Rongorongo is writing, there are three barriers that make it difficult to decipher: the limited number of texts, the lack of illustrations and other contexts with which to understand them, and poor attestation of the Old Rapanui language, which is likely to be the language reflected in the tablets. Some believe that the Rongorongo is not true writing, but proto-writing, which is a set of symbols that convey information without containing any truly linguistic content. According to the Atlas of Language, the Rongorongo “was probably used as a memory aid or for decorative purposes, not for recording the Rapanui language of the islanders.”
While it remains unclear exactly what the Rongorongo is intended to convey, the discovery and inspection of the tablets remain an important key to understanding the past civilizations of Easter Island. The intricately inscribed, neatly lined images indicate that the ancient island civilization had a message to convey, whether it was a casual display for decorative purposes, or to pass messages and stories forward from generation to generation. Perhaps deciphering the codes will someday lead to answers about the collapse of the island civilization, but for now, the tablets remain a mysterious symbol from the past.