Rongorongo (pronouced as ‘ rɒŋɡoʊ rɒŋɡoʊ ‘) is a system of glyphs discovered in the 19th century on Easter Island that appears to be writing or proto-writing in Rapanui Language.
Numerous attempts at decipherment have been made, none successfully. Although some calendrical and what might prove to be genealogical information has been identified, not even these glyphs can actually be read.
If rongorongo does prove to be writing and proves to be an independent invention, it could be one of very few independent inventions of writing in human history.
Origin of Rongorongo script and Rapanui Language
The people of Easter Island were possibly inspired to invent the Rongorongo script after seeing the writing used by the Spanish when they annexed the island in 1770. The Easter Islanders were apparently impressed by the mana or power of the Spaniards’ writing.
Rongorongo was used until the 1860s, after which knowledge of the script was lost. Nowadays most Easter Islanders write in Spanish using the Latin alphabet though a few try to write their own language, Rapanui, also with the Latin alphabet.
Since missionaries started visiting Easter Island in the 1860s, they have taken an interest in the mysterious Rongorongo symbols. A number of attempts have been made to decipher them, none of which have been completely successful, though in his book Rongorongo: The Easter Island Script, Steven Roger Fischer, Director of the Institute of Polynesian Languages and Literatures in Auckland, New Zealand, claims to have unlocked its mysteries.
Two other scripts were once used on Easter Island: Ta’u and Mama, but little is known about them as very few inscriptions have been found.
Two dozen wooden objects bearing rongorongo inscriptions, some heavily weathered, burned, or otherwise damaged, were collected in the late 19th century and are now scattered in museums and private collections. None remain on Easter Island. The objects are mostly tablets shaped from irregular pieces of wood, sometimes driftwood, but include a chieftain’s staff, a bird-man statuette, and two reimiro ornaments. There are also a few petroglyphs which may include short rongorongo inscriptions. Oral history suggests that only a small elite was ever literate and that the tablets were sacred.
Authentic rongorongo texts are written in alternating directions, a system called reverse boustrophedon. In a third of the tablets, the lines of text are inscribed in shallow fluting carved into the wood. The glyphs themselves are outlines of human, animal, plant, artifact and geometric forms. Many of the human and animal figures, have characteristic protuberances on each side of the head, possibly representing ears or eyes.
Etymology & Variant Names
Rongorongo is the modern name for the inscriptions. In the Rapanui language it means “to recite, to declaim, to chant out“.
The original name—or perhaps description—of the script is said to have been kohau motu mo rongorongo, “lines incised for chanting out“, shortened to kohau rongorongo or “lines [for] chanting out“.
There are also said to have been more specific names for the texts based on their topic. For example, the kohau ta‘u (“lines of years“) were annals, the kohau îka (“lines of fishes“) were lists of persons killed in war (îka “fish” was homophonous with or used figuratively for “war casualty“), and the kohau ranga “lines of fugitives” were lists of war refugees.
Direction of writing & Mediums used
Rongorongo glyphs were written in reverse boustrophedon, left to right and bottom to top. That is, the reader begins at the bottom left-hand corner of a tablet, reads a line from left to right, then rotates the tablet 180 degrees to continue on the next line. When reading one line, the lines above and below it would appear upside down, as can be seen in the image at left.
However, the writing continues onto the second side of a tablet at the point where it finishes off the first, so if the first side has an odd number of lines, as is the case with tablets K, N, P, and Q, the second will start at the upper left-hand corner, and the direction of writing shifts to top to bottom.
Larger tablets and staves may have been read without turning, if the reader were able to read upside-down.
A 15-meter tree, known as “Pacific rosewood” for its color and called mako‘i in Rapanui, is used for sacred groves and carvings throughout eastern Polynesia and was evidently brought to Easter Island by the first settlers.
South African Yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius) and Banana Leaves were also used.
According to oral tradition, scribes used obsidian flakes or small shark teeth, presumably the hafted tools still used to carve wood in Polynesia, to flute and polish the tablets and then to incise the glyphs.
The glyphs are most commonly composed of deep smooth cuts, though superficial hair-line cuts are also found.
Several researchers believe that these superficial cuts were made by obsidian, and that the texts were carved in a two-stage process, first sketched with obsidian and then deepened and finished with a worn shark tooth.
The remaining hair-line cuts were then either errors, design conventions (as at right), or decorative embellishments.
Vertical strings of chevrons or lozenges, for example, are typically connected with hair-line cuts
However, the last literate Rapanui king, Nga‘ara, sketched out the glyphs in soot with a fish bone and then engraved them with a shark tooth.
Other instruments like sharpened bones, steel blades were also used to write and cut these tablets.
The glyphs are stylized human, animal, vegetable and geometric shapes, and often form compounds. Nearly all those with heads are oriented head up and are either seen face on or in profile to the right, in the direction of writing. It is not known what significance turning a glyph head down or to the left may have had.
Heads often have characteristic projections on the sides which may be eyes (as on the sea turtle glyph above, and more clearly on sea-turtle petroglyphs) but which often resemble ears.
Birds are common; many resemble the frigatebird (see image directly below) which was associated with the supreme god Makemake.
Other glyphs look like fish or arthropods. A few, but only a few, are similar to petroglyphs found throughout the island.
They were discovered on January 2, 1864 by Eugène Eyraud, a lay friar of the Congrégation de Picpus and most were destroyed by Bishop of Tahiti, Florentin-Étienne “Tepano” Jaussen in 1868, when he could not read them and found them useless.
Today, Rapanui is a Polynesian language spoken by about 2,500 people on Easter Island and also in Chile, Tahiti and the USA.