When thinking about Easter Island (Rapa Nui), invariably the first thing that comes to mind is the 887 monolithic Moai or moʻai human figures carved on the slopes of the volcanic crater of Rano Raraku between the years 900 and 1500 A.D by the Rapa Nui people.
Located in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, at the southeasternmost point of the Polynesian Triangle in Oceania, this World Heritage Site has an incredibly rich cultural heritage that has fascinated researchers and historians alike for centuries.
But what might be less well-known about this island was the discovery of the Rongorongo Script, a largely undeciphered writing system that was found inscribed on irregularly shaped wooden tablets on Rapa Nui. Rongorongo is an ancient writing system that left few tantalizing clues to its purpose and origin.
At 163.6 km², Easter Island is believed to have been originally colonized by Polynesian settlers around 300 A.D., likely coinciding with the arrival of the first settlers in Hawaii.
Legends tell of Hotu Matu’a and his captain, Tu’u ko Iho, who travelled to the island aboard two canoes, having set off from Marae Renga or Marae Toe Hau, also known as the Cook Islands. According to the tales, Hotu had been in a feud with a rival chief and was looking for a new home when Haumaka had a prophetic dream of a far-off land.
When they arrived, they found the island already inhabited by Nga Tavake ‘a Te Rona. After a short stay at Anakena, the colonists dispersed to different parts of the island and Hotu’s successor, Tu’u ma Heke, was born there. It is also believed that it was Tu’u ko Iho who brought the statues to life.
The island is known as Easter Island in English as it was discovered on Easter Sunday in 1722 by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen who named it Paasch-Eyland (18th-century Dutch for “Easter Island”). Its official Spanish name, Isla de Pascua, also means “Easter Island”.
By the time Europeans arrived in 1722, the population was estimated to be around 2,000-3,000. From 1860 onwards, a series of raids and black-birding decimated the population even further. Among those who perished were the “tumu ivi ‘atua, bearers of the island’s culture, history, and genealogy besides the rongorongo experts.”
Chile annexed Easter Island in 1888 and granted Chilean citizenship to the Rapa Nui residents in 1966. Currently, the island is home to 7,750 people, of which 3,512 (45%) consider themselves Rapa Nui.
Ethnologists and ethnographers have argued that the Polynesian name, Rapa Nui (“Big Rapa”), was adopted after the slave raids of the 1860s, indicating the island’s similarity in topography to the island of Rapa in the Bass Islands.
Others have stated that the original name of the island was “Te pito o te henua”, which translates to “The Navel of the World”. Additionally, the phrase Mata ki te rangi, which means “Eyes looking to the sky”, has also been used to refer to the island.
Islanders are referred to in Spanish as Pascuense, and members of the indigenous community are commonly referred to as Rapa Nui.
The Rongorongo Script
The Rongorongo Script is a form of proto-writing discovered on Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island in the 19th and has been the subject of much research and debate ever since. The script, written on pieces of wood, was called “Rongo Rongo” which in the native language means “to recite, to declaim, to chant out.”
The system is made up of glyphs, which were found inscribed on wooden artifacts and are believed to have been used to pass secret messages among the Rapanui people. The origin of this script has been traced to Father Eugène Eyraud, a French missionary belonging to the Roman Catholic Church who arrived on the island in January 1864.
He discovered a set of 26 wooden objects bearing what appeared to be a few inscriptions. In April 1868, Father Eyraud made the first known recordings of the Rongorongo script and sent them to France for further study. Since then, further research has been carried out on these symbols but their meaning still remains elusive today.
The Rongo Rongo script is thought to have been the written language of the Rapa Nui people and it was inscribed on tablets, staffs, ceremonial platforms and stone statues. It is also believed that this script was used to record genealogy, liturgy and choreography among other elements of the Rapa Nui culture.
The symbols resemble palm tree pollen, which is abundant on the island, and it’s possible that they are a record of a local form of writing or proto-writing.
Rongorongo glyphs were written in a style known as reverse boustrophedon. In this method, the reader begins at the bottom left-hand corner of a tablet, reads the line from left to right, and then rotates the tablet 180 degrees to read the next line.
This process was determined by clues such as glyphs that twist as the line changes direction, glyphs that were squashed to fit in at the end of a text, as well as parallel passages between tablets.
The text written in this way is often upside down when viewed from the next line, making it a unique writing style. Rongorongo is one of the few systems outside the Hieroglyphic Luwian languages to have used this writing style and is a testament to its unique cultural significance.
Oral tradition states that scribes used obsidian flakes or small shark teeth to flute and polish the tablets. It is believed that the glyphs were created in two stages, first sketched with obsidian and then deepened and finished with a worn shark tooth. Close-up images show how the glyphs are composed of two parts connected by a hair-line cut, a common convention for this shape.
The use of obsidian and shark teeth in creating the glyphs allowed for deep smooth cuts as well as superficial hair-line cuts. This two-stage process allowed for a more detailed and precise design.
The ancient practice of using obsidian flakes and shark teeth to carve glyphs has been passed down through oral tradition and is still being used in Polynesia today. The two-stage process of sketching with obsidian and deepening with a worn shark tooth has been used in the past and is still used to create intricate and detailed glyph designs.
By the 1770s, the Spanish had colonized Rapa Nui leading to its decline and devastation caused by European diseases. In the 1860s, the population had dwindled to only 3,000 people, and about half of the remaining inhabitants were tragically kidnapped by Peruvian slavers in 1862.
The devastating result of this was the loss of many aspects of the island, including its history. The ancient scripts that told the traditional history of Rapa Nui were no longer decipherable, and with too few examples left to attempt reconstruction, it appears that this history has been lost forever.
The presence of these tablets has been observed on island shores since as early as 1864 when Father Eugène Eyraud documented them upon his arrival as part of a Catholic mission. It is believed that the Rongorongo script collapsed following the Peruvian slaving raids in 1862 which marked the end of time for Rapa Nui.
To date, it has not been possible to decipher the symbols in order to understand what they mean or how they were used by speakers of the Rapa Nui language. As such, it has been speculated that they may have served as a mnemonic device for memorization or may have become tablets because they were too fragile to be spoken aloud due to certain taboos that have since been lost over time.
It is thought that these symbols are associated with megalithic stone houses and statues which can still be found on Rapa Nui today and are known as Tangata-Rongorongo or ‘people who wrote’ in Rapa Nui. This suggests a strong correlation between writing and megalithic architecture which further adds mystery to this unknown script from centuries ago.
These written glyphs have remained an important key to understanding past civilizations, yet despite this discovery, efforts to decipher the script have been futile. It is believed that the Rapa Nui representatives who first discovered and inspected these tablets remain as the only ones who understand its writing system. This highlights the importance of preserving such ancient artifacts for future generations to study and analyze.
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