Easter Island is branded into popular consciousness as the home of the mysterious and towering moai statues, but these are not the only curiosity the South Pacific island holds. Where the moai are fascinating for their unknown purpose and mysterious craftsmen, the island’s lost language of Rongorongo is equally perplexing. The unique written language seems to have appeared suddenly in the 1700s, but within just two centuries it was exiled to obscurity.
Known as Rapa Nui to the island’s inhabitants, Rongorongo is a writing system of pictographs. It has been found carved into many oblong wooden tablets and other artifacts from the island’s history. The art of writing was not known in any nearby islands and the script’s mere existence is sufficient to confound anthropologists. The most plausible explanation so far has been that the Easter Islanders were inspired by the writing they observed in 1770 when the Spanish claimed the island. However, despite its recency, no linguist or archaeologist has been able to successfully decipher the Rongorongo language.
When early Europeans discovered Easter Island, its somewhat isolated ecosystem was suffering from the effects of limited natural resources, deforestation, and overpopulation. Over the following years the island’s population of four thousand or so was slowly eroded by Western disease and deportation by slave traders. By 1877, only about one hundred and ten inhabitants remained. Rongorongo was one victim of these circumstances. The colonizers of Easter Island had decided that the strange language was too closely tied to the inhabitants’ pagan past, and forbade it as a form of communication. Missionaries forced the inhabitants to destroy the tablets with Rongorongo inscriptions.
In 1864, Father Joseph Eyraud became the first non-islander to record Rongorongo. Writing before the ultimate decline of the Eastern Island society, he noted that “one finds in all the houses wooden tables or staffs covered with sorts of hieroglyphs.” Despite his interest in the subject, he was not able to find an Islander willing to translate the texts. The islanders were understandably reluctant to help, given that the Europeans forcefully suppressed the use of their native writing.
Some time later, Bishop Florentin Jaussen of Tahiti attempted to translate the texts. A young Easter Islander named Metero claimed to be able to read Rongorongo, and for fifteen days the bishop kept a record while the boy dictated from the inscriptions. Bishop Jaussen gave up the effort when he realized that Metero was a fraud; the boy had assigned several meanings to the same symbol.
In 1886 Paymaster William Thompson of the ship USS Mohican became interested in the pictographic system during a journey to collect artifacts for the National Museum in Washington. He had obtained two rare tablets engraved with the script and was curious about their meaning. He asked eighty-three-year-old islander Ure Va’e Iko for assistance in translation because his age made him more likely to have knowledge of the language. The man reluctantly admitted to knowing what the tablets said, but did not wish to break the orders of the missionaries. As a result, Ure Va’e Iko refused to touch the tablets, let alone decipher them.
Thompson was determined, however, and decided that Ure Va’e Iko might be more forthcoming under the influence of alcohol. After having a few drinks kindly provided by Thompson, the Easter Islander looked at the tablets once again. The old man burst into song, singing a fertility chant which described the mating of gods and goddesses. William Thompson and his companions quickly took down his words. This was potentially a big breakthrough, but Thomson struggled with assigning words to the pictographs. Furthermore, he couldn’t find another Islander who was willing to confirm the accuracy of this translation. While Thompson was ultimately unable to read Rongorongo, the translation that Iko provided has remained one of the most valuable clues on how to decipher the tablets.
In the following decades, many scholars have attempted to make sense of this mystery. In 1932, Wilhelm de Hevesy tried to link Rongorongo to the Indus script of the Indus Valley Civilization in India, claiming that as many as forty Rongorongo symbols had a correlating symbol in the script from India. Further examination found this link to be much more superficial than originally believed. In the 1950s, Thomas Barthel became one of the first linguists of the modern era to make a study of Rongorongo. He stated that system contained 120 basic elements that, when combined, formed 1500 different signs. Furthermore, he asserted that the symbols represented both objects and ideas. This made it more difficult to produce a translation because an individual symbol could potentially represent an entire phrase. Barthel was successful, however, in identifying an artifact known as the Mamri tablet as a lunar calendar.
Some of the most recent research has been conducted by a linguist named Steven Fischer. Having studied nearly every surviving example of Rongorongo, he took particular interest in a four-foot-long scepter that had once been the property of an Easter Island Chief. The artifact is covered in pictographs, and Fischer noticed that every third symbol on this staff has an additional “phallus-like” symbol attached to it.This led Fischer to believe that all Rongorongo texts have a structure steeped in counts of three, or triads. He has also studied Ure Va’e Iko’s fertility chant, which lent additional support to the concept. Iko had always named a god first, his goddess mate second, and their offspring third. Fischer has also tried to make the claim that all Rongorongo texts relate creation myths. Looking at another text, he has suggested that a sentence with a symbol of a bird, a fish, and a sun reads “All the birds copulated with fish: there issued forth the sun.” While this could be the translation, it bears little resemblance to Ure Va’e Iko’s chant about the matings of gods and goddesses.
Rongorongo naturally commands a great deal of interest from linguists, anthropologists, and archaeologists. Only twenty-five texts are know to have survived. Should anyone find a workable translation for Rongorongo, the knowledge stored on the remaining tablets might explain the mysterious statues of Easter Island, the sudden appearance of the written language, and the island’s history and customs as whole. However, much like the statues which have so captivated popular imagination, Rongorongo has so far defied all attempts at explanation.