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Rongorongo: a Written Language few can Understand

Updated on October 15, 2016
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

Sample of Rongorongo
Sample of Rongorongo

Easter Island is a land onto itself. Despite being nearly denuded of trees, this seemingly barren and isolated island contains a bountiful array of mysteries and wonders.

By all means, this is the island of the giant stone heads. Numerous statues buried neck deep that stare across the land once dominated by the Rapa Nui people. They've been an enigma for centuries since the world outside this island finally discovered them. Many speculated, pondered and came up with theories on how a seemingly primitive people managed to carve, move and erect such mammoth statues.

This also opens up another mystery; were the Rapa Nui really "primitive?" Doesn't a society that can produce such thing need to have other abilities --such as the one to read and write? And if so, how could an isolated culture produce their own written language?

For years, researchers believed that the Rapa Nui people were incapable to communicate through writing. That is until someone took a closer look at the rocks and flotsam found within the villages and near the iconic statues and discovered intricate symbols carved into them.

Rongorongo - a collection of glyph believed by many to be the written language of the Rapa Nui people – has remained mostly undecipherable. But, the likelihood that these glyph are the best representation of how these island people's communicated and kept records of events is a goldmine for anthropologists. And, possibly, they are keys to figuring out all other mysteries of Easter Island. That is, if anyone can figure it out.

Its Origins

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In terms of languages, Rongorongo is possibly one of the youngest. No one is sure when the language started. What is known is that the language was in use in the late 18th century at about the time when Spanish explorers came to the island to colonize it (the Spanish were the second Europeans to discover the island. The Dutch discovered it in 1722).

There are several theories and speculation pertaining to its origin. Here are some examples:

• According to the islanders’ oral tradition, either Hotu Matu’a or Tu’u Iho, the legendary founders of the island, brought 67 tablets from their homeland (Fischer, 2010).

• "Homeland" was either Polynesia or South America.

• The first Spanish explorers may have had an indirect influence on the language’s development.

•. Rongorongo was invented on the island, independent from other sources.

The Evidence Proves Elusive

According to the website, Omniglot, the people of Easter Island may have been inspired to invent Rongorongo after seeing how the written language was used by the Spanish during the colonial period in the early 1770s.

Evidence of this is supported by Rongorongo’s estimated age. Tablets found on the island with Rongorongo were dated, and found to be created sometime after the year 1680.

Still, the type of wood used by the Rapa Nui proved to be difficult to date. And some of it came from trees that either doesn’t exist on the island (possibly driftwood) or are native palms that have gone extinct.

What Makes it Undecipherable?

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Since its discovery by European explorers and missionaries (who came to the island or worked with migrants who settled on Tahiti), attempts had been made to translate the written language. However, everyone - even the native islanders – struggled and failed to make a thorough translation. Progress has been slow; only items pertaining to calendars and rituals have been identified.

Part of the problem is its unusual semantics and archaic sentence structure. Researchers have not been sure if the hieroglyphs this language used represent phonemes, phrases or concepts.

The way Rongorongo was recorded is complex. Often the first few lines will be recorded in horizontal lines and starts at the top and head to the bottom. However, when it reaches the bottom, the next line would start at the bottom and head to the top (this is known as reverse boustrophedon).

Historical Problems

Another major problem is that the written language has not been used by native islanders since the late 1800s. Today, native Easter Islanders primarily speak Spanish and write in the standard Latin text.

A further study of the rituals and customs of the ancient Rapa Nui revealed that the literate population on the island was small. According to oral traditions, the scripts were considered sacred and its exposure to the public was very limited (a chieftain’s staff and a statue from the bird cult era had the script etched into it). Members of the chieftain’s family and religious leaders were often the ones who could read it.

The tumultuous and tragic history of the islanders played a pivotal part in the language’s elusiveness. Although the people had lived on the islands for thousands of years, and had established a viable society, natural and manmade disasters such as deforestation, destroyed it.

The people of the island were also exploited.

Deforestation was actually a manmade disaster that had its connection to the creation of the giant statues that has made the island famous. The trees – including the now extinct Easter Island Palms - were cut down and used as rollers to transport massive rocks and the statues to the island’s coast. Since wood was used for recording the language, few pieces – including driftwood - were used for Rongorongo.

The people of the island were also exploited. In 1805 for instance, the crew of the New England Whaler, Nancy, kidnapped 22 islanders and made them deckhands for the ship. Later, in 1862, 2000 islanders were kidnapped and sent to Peru as slaves. Two years later, they’d be returned. However, they brought smallpox back. The disease would wipe out all but 111 islanders on Easter Island. If disease didn’t get them, migration did. Many native islanders left, either migrating or being shipped to Polynesian islands such as Tahiti.

Attempts to Decipher Rongorongo

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One of the first recorded attempts to translate Rongorongo occurred on Tahiti. In 1873, Bishop Etienne Jaussen obtained some photos of the tablets with the Rongorongo script. Curious of its meanings, he turned to an islander working on a plantation in Tahiti.

The man, named Metoro, claimed he had some knowledge of the script's meaning However, a problem arose; Metoro was able to describe the meaning behind various glyphs, but he couldn’t read it when placed together in a "sentence." Still, Jaussen was able to compile the images along with some of the meanings provided by Metoro.

A chieftain staff known as the Santiago Staff had been given to the Chilean Navy by converted Christian Rapa Nui people in 1870

In the 1950s modern science entered the fray. Russian epigraphers and German ethnologist Thomas Barthel were successful in registering each Rongorongo glyphs and describing the script’s parameter. He was also able to make an inventory of the glyphs which consisted of 120 main symbols and 1200 – 2000 compound glyphs which repeated themselves in the inscription in significant ways (Fischer, 2010).

Dr. Steven Roger Fischer, PhD became the latest in a long line of researchers to attempt to crack this enigmatic code .

Fischer's contributions were as follows:

• He confirmed the age of the scripts.

• Contributed to the theory that Rongorongo was inspired by the written Spanish language.

• Was the first to discover a “Rosetta Stone” of sorts.

The latter was of extreme importance. It came in the form of A chieftain staff known as the Santiago Staff. It had been given to the Chilean Navy by converted Christian Rapa Nui people in 1870. As it was being handed over, one islander pointed to the sky indicating that the text referred to something sacred.

According to Fischer, this staff confirmed that the text was indeed referring to something sacred in the Rapa Nui religion.

After identifying certain suffixes, repetitions of words, and familiar patterns on other wooden tablets, Fischer was certain that he was beginning to decipher one of four or five written scripts that have remained undecipherable.

The Importance of Deciphering Rongorongo

Rongorongo has a dubious distinction of being a dying language that's not officially recognized as being a language. Even the idea it's a "dying" language is a stretch; nobody actively speaks, reads or writes it.

Still, there's hope; there's merging evidence to push the process of cracking the language’s code forward. If ever broken, Its importance will shed light on a culture that had thrived for thousands of years before having a rapid decline by the time European explorers discovered them. And finally, researchers may be able to piece together islands other secrets, too.

Short Video Presentation on Rongorongo Writing

© 2016 Dean Traylor

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    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 11 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Rongorongo is something I had never heard of. This was very informative, Dean. I hope they manage to decipher it soon and broadcast the meaning. Thanks for sharing.

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