#Incognita: Rongorongo

On Easter Island a writing has developed in complete isolation, which is unique in the entire Polynesian world. Autonomous writing systems were known only from the Old World and from pre-Columbian Mesoamerica until their discovery in 1868, and therefore, from the point of view of science, this writing occupies a very special position. Numerous attempts at decipherment have been made, none successfully.

The Rapa Nui writing system is known as “Rongorongo” and is a font consisting of glyphs and symbold depicting human figures, anthropomorphic or zoomorphic beings, animals, plants or even body parts, but also objects from the daily life of Rapa Nui.

History of dicipherment

The term “Rongorongo” comes from the island of Mangareva and was presumably spread by Father Eugène Eyraud around the year 1864. It is not known whether or not the Rapa Nui gave their writing a name. In Mangareva the word “Rongorongo” refers to an elite circle of selected persons who were able to celebrate sacred songs and recitations during a ritual or festival. Rongorongo can also mean “singing”, “recitation” or “lecture”.

The scientific community today assumes that the Rongorongo writing tablets served exclusively to recite religious monologues and were accessible only to an elite circle of high-ranking personalities, such as priests and elders. These then passed on their knowledge orally to selected pupils. The faithful reproduction and meaning of the signs was of great religious importance.

Father Sebastian Englert, who worked on the Easter Island from 1937 to 1969, reported on an old man who still knew inhabitants who had to learn these characters as a student. According to these reports, the study of the script was very strict. Students were not allowed to play or speak during the learning phase, had to sit on their knees and put their hands together before their chest. After a certain period of teaching, the children had to recite and copy the signs on banana leaves. It was only when they were able to prove a certain degree of perfection in their knowledge and achievements that they could begin to carve the signs on wooden tablets.

According to the reports of the missionary Eugéne Eyraud, the Rongorongo wooden panels were rolled into cane leaves and stored in the Paenga houses. According to the Rapa-Nui questioned by Eyraud, only to consecrated priests and tribal leaders were allowd access to these tablets, and were only publicly displayed for special occasions and rites. Even reading these panels was reserved exclusively for the “Tangata Rongorongo”, that is, the scribes from the families of the chieftains. The last holy Tangata Rongorongo was “Ariki Ngaara” from the once powerful “Miru clan”. Ariki Ngaara is said to have been in possession of several hundred tablets. The last Rapa Nui, who were able to read and interpret the Rongorongo script without doubt, were abducted from 1659 to 1663 by slave traders for the Guano mining in Peru (Perucha Islands) and died there a few months later.

Although the island was discovered in 1722 by the Dutch admiral Roggeveen, the Europeans only came into contact with the writing system of the Rapa Nui in the year 1770. That was due to the Spanish annexation attempts of Easter Island by Don Felipe González Ahedo on behalf of the Viceroy of Peru, Manuel d’Amat i Junyent. Don Felipe González Ahedo wanted to take possession of Easter Island for the Spanish crown on 20.11.1770, he set up 3 crosses on the Poike peninsula and got a signed a certificate of ownership from the Rapa Nui chieftains.

The first time real attention was drawn to the script of Rapa Nui was in 1868, by a fragment (possibly fragment Chauvet), which came into the possession of Bishop Jaussen, possibly by a Rapa Nui who emigrated to Tahiti. It was only now that he ordered the missionaries on the Easter Island to save everything that could be saved and to send him some copies. It was Bishop Jaussen who, in 1868, undertook the first attempts to decipher the Rongorongo script. For this purpose, he was read the slates in his possession by a Rapa Nui named Metoro. Metoro seemed to have basic knowledge of the writing, but Jaussen judged that the notes of the Metoro songs were not really useful. Thomas Barthel, however, drew valuable conclusions from the Jaussen recordings during his work (1958).

The next person to attempt to elicit the secrets of the Rongorongo writing tablets, was the American William J. Thomson in 1886. Thomson was read the Jaussen tablets during his expedition from an old Rapa Nui named Ure Vaeiko, but only on the basis of photos. Ure Vaeiko apparently only recited the same story of creation again and again, and Thomson concluded that attempts to decipher Rongorongo with the help of Ure Vaeikos were unsuccessful. Unfortunately, Thomson did not make a precise record of which tables Ure Vaeiko has recited, and thus subsequent researchers can’t really use any of the information Thomson has left behind.

In 1914, Katherine Routledge tried to find out more about the Rongorongo writing tablets during her Easter Island expedition. For this, she contacted Kapiera and a leper named Tomenika, they supposedly knew the Rongorongo script. The sessions were not very fruitful, as the two often contradicted each other. From them Routledge concluded that Rongorongo was an idiosyncratic mnemonic device that did not directly represent language, in other words, proto-writing, and that the meanings of the glyphs were reformulated by each scribe. In the end Tomenika refused to give his knowledge away (if he had any), and he said 14 days before his death that the Rongorongo script was reserved for the Rapa Nui. With Tomenika dead, the last known contemporary witness had died.

The first serious scientific attempts to decipher the Rongorongo script were undertaken by the Swiss / American ethnologist Alfred Métraux in 1934, the Russian ethnographer Kudrjawzew in 1943, as well as the Russian ethnologists Nikolai Butinov and Yuri Knorosov in 1956. Métraux came to the realization that the Rongorongo symbols have only mnemotechnical and no phonetic functions and therefore it is not possible to translate the characters literally. Kurdrjawzew was able to prove parallels of certain text passages for the first time, while Nikolai Butinov and Yuri Knorosov pointed out that on the tablet G (small Santiago tablet), a list of rulers or their ancestors with the title, the name, the father’s name and a suffix are recorded.

Great leaps were achieved with the work of the German anthropologist Thomas Barthel, with his work from 1958. Barthel published a habilitation thesis titled “The Basics of the Deciphering of the Easter Inscription”. This is a meticulous and systematic treatise on the surviving Rongorongo writings (as of 1958), with an exact record of the whereabouts of the panels, as well as an accurate record, cataloging and scientific evaluation of all known characters. To a large extent, Barthel’s work is still a solid foundation for the deciphering of the script. Barthel was also the first scientist, who in one of the panels suspected among other things a lunar calendar.

Construction and reading

The writing is predominantly placed on wooden tables (called kohau rongorongo), a wooden ceremonial bar, two Rei Miro and a Moai Tangata Manu. Altogether only 25 authentic documents are preserved worldwide. They are scattered over various museums in the world, none of them have remained on the island. It is now undisputed that it is not a hieroglyphic writing, in which the signs represent real objects. It is also no longer considered to be pictography (symbol-picture-writing), but rather the writing consists of ideograms, meaning that characters represent a whole concept.

It is read in lines in a variation of the bustrophedon from left to right and from bottom to top. That The reader starts at the bottom left and reads the bottom line from left to right. Then the board is rotated by 180 degrees and the next line is read. Most of the panels are written on both sides, and the text continues without interruption on the back.

The entire written literature covers only about 14,000 characters. The script consists of a total of 600 symbols, which however can be reduced to 120 basic components, which are used as building elements. Its grouping and coding with three-digit numbers introduced by Thomas Barthel is still valid in principle today, although others have now refined and supplemented this system.

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.