Undeciphered Scripts: Rongorongo on Easter Island

As a new assistant editor of the Journal of New Zealand and Pacific Studies as well as a new associate curator of the Easter Island, Myths and Popular Culture international exhibition, I am exposed to a wide range of interesting topics related to the South Pacific. My latest fascination involves rongorongo, a system of glyphs found on Easter Island in the late 19th century. Easter Island is famous for the moai, or stone statues, which many people wrongly believe are only heads. In fact, they have torsos as well, but many of the moai are buried in the ground up to their necks. Rongorongo was not inscribed on the moai, but on wooden tablets – none of which remain on the island as they are all now in museums or private collections.

Rongorongo

Rongorongo

The glyphs are written in reverse boustrophedon (alternating directions) and have yet to be deciphered by linguists. Some believe the glyphs are not actually writing or a representation of the Rapa Nui language, but perhaps proto-writing or even a mnemonic device. Overpopulation, deforestation, European diseases and Peruvian slave raids almost killed all of the Rapa Nui by the late 19th century. Much of the history and knowledge of the previous generations died with them, so we may never be able to decipher rongorongo.

The Rapa Nui still live on Easter Island, which is now a special territory of Chile, and the island has not been uninhabited since the Rapa Nui arrived (perhaps as late as 1200 CE). The population dwindled to its all-time low of 111 in 1877, but today the population of the island is near 6,000 and more than half are Rapa Nui. Most representations of Easter Island focus on the moai and the incorrect assumption that the island is uninhabited. Out of all of the commercials, advertisements, cartoons, novels and comic books I’ve been investigating lately, this Chilean commercial is the only one that focuses on the Rapa Nui people rather than the moai. Note how the island is also called Rapa Nui (the name for the island in the Rapa Nui language) and you can hear a few words of Rapa Nui being spoken as well.

  • http://blog.fluenthistorian.com/ Natalie

    You’re assistant editor of a journal? Congratulations!

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    Yup! Just became asst. editor this year. :)

  • http://wordtrans.com/ Austin Voigt

    This was such a great read! I actually just got back from France last weekend, and it was so refreshing to be able to practice speaking with natives rather than in a classroom. Thanks for this post! Good stuff.

  • Bob patterson

    Interesting article on one of my
    favorite places. The ecological destruction of Easter Island was also well
    written about in Jo Anne Van Tilburg’s book “Easter Island” (1994).
    Rapa Nui, as it is today lies in contrast to a disturbing past. Early European
    explorers and priests decimated a unique culture as well as its icons/writing
    (Rongorongo) tablets. It is well documented that Chile used many of the
    islanders as slave workers. I did find some cool pictures of Easter Island on
    imagetaxi (.com)