Skip to comments.The Other Mystery of Easter Island[Language of Rongorongo]
Posted on 12/27/2006 10:27:03 PM PST by FLOutdoorsman
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 comprised 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 scripts 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 Vae 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 Vae 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 Vae 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.
Not sure if it's your field.
Easter Island Language ping
"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."
As with the destruction of Mayan/Aztec texts, the arrogance of received religion claimed another victim.
yup. thought the same thing. religious zealots suck.
Jared Diamond wrote a piece on what actually happened on Easter Island and what the stone figures meant.
So um, what did they mean? I always thought they were a navigation system for space aliens or something, LOL.
They were brutal primitives who raised the monuments for ceremonial purposes until a shortage of resources on the island led to an orgy of self-destruction. The loss of their language really is no loss at all.
Without a doubt, Bush's fault.
Fascinating, thank you.
It will take a cunning linguist to decipher that language.......Rong or write..........
They seem to have used up the wood. What is the basis for your calling them brutal, though? Other than the fact that anyone who doesn't worship Jesus must be subhuman, that is.
"The Dutch Admiral Roggeveen, onboard the Arena, was the first European to visit the island on Easter Sunday 1722. He found a society in a primitive state with about 3,000 people living in squalid reed huts or caves, engaged in almost perpetual warfare and resorting to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to supplement the meagre food supplies available on the island."
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Gods, Graves, Glyphs (alpha order)
The obvious translation is, "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn".
What about that manuscript (in Austria) that no one has been able to translate? The one with all the weird plants and unclothed maidens in the margins.
Is this the one you mean?
He also showed how the noah flood story was a jazzed up myth about a true incident : surviving a hurricane by being washed out to sea on a raft.
Nah. Jared wrote what he thought happened.
I'm quite sure many of our ancestors would be considered 'primitive' at some point. It's amazing enough their understanding of shipbuilding and navigation. They had to get there somehow. Perhaps an understanding of the language could explain how they got there and what the purpose was for the statues.
"Rongo Rongo Rongo I don't want to leave the Congo oh no no no no!
Bingo Bango Bungle I'm so happy in the jungle I refuse to go!
Don't want no TV's, Buses, Autos...I'll make it clear
As for civilization...I'll stay right here!
" I guess the great atheist scholars of history have *never* been guilty of such abomination."
PeeWee Herman loves the 'I know what I am, what are you?' style of religious apologetics, too.
Lord Greystoke, I presume?
Nah -- he speaks Ronery-ronery.
Well, the arrogance of misguided fanatics anyway.
Is this so RongoRongo?
Gee I wish we were all like Mayan's. Pass the knife, I can do this heart in 4 seconds. /sarcasm
"Gee I wish we were all like Mayan's. Pass the knife, I can do this heart in 4 seconds. /sarcasm"
Yes, the Inquisition was a model of persuasion.
Libertarians the liberal meat.
"Yes, the Inquisition was a model of persuasion."
Tell me, how many people were executed by the Inquisition?
How much dog poop is it okay to eat? Just a little?
Just trying in a friendly fashion to explore your impressions of what the Inquisition was and what it did.
I guess I should have known better.
No, his lover, Jane.
I see excerpts from it every day painted on the sides of boxcars.
The most difficult problem is to determine which language exactly was spoken on EI in the earliest period. And here, of course, we need to deal with the historical theories of Heyerdahl. According to him, the earliest language was probably S American.
In his essay, Heyerdahl provides evidence to show similarities between rongorongo and some extremely obscure ancient S American scripts, especially the Cuna script of Panama, and native writing systems in the area of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. He also lists some interesting associated cultural parallels between these areas. Also, he details some rather intriguing iconographic parallels between rongorongo and the carvings on the famous Gateway of the Sun in Tiwanaku.
As described by Heyerdahl, there's significant evidence of reliable native Rapanui informants indicating that some oldest tablet texts, or parts of texts, may have been read in some obscure old language different from Rapanui language of the 19th c. We even have one seemingly ancient chant, first attested by Routledge, and rediscovered on EI by Heyerdahl in 1956, that is almost completely incomprehensible to anyone on Rapanui. This is the _he timo te ako-ako_ chant.
I tend to agree with Jacques that it is probable that the actual knowledge of the rongorongo script may have been forgotten for quite some time on EI even before the Europeans first appeared on the scene.
In this essay, Heyerdahl also describes in detail and analyses a very unusual trove of written materials that he came across while digging on Rapanui in 1956. These previously unknown texts, written on paper, were provided to him by some islanders. Barthel's essay in the same volume confirms the importance of these documents, while pointing out that much of their content was based on Bishop Jaussen's dictionary lists that somehow made it back to the island from Tahiti. These previously unknown texts, dating approximately to the turn of the present century, show that some modern Easter Islanders were still keenly interested in rongorongo and tried to work out some of its mysteries for themselves.
Epigraphic Society Occasional Publications
Volume 18 1989
Deciphering the Easter Island Tablets - Part 1 (26 pp) Barry Fell 18-p 185
The author deciphers the Easter Island rongorongo inscriptions with the aid of New Zealand cave inscriptions, signatures of Maori chieftains on the Treaty of Waitangi, and spoken passages recorded more than a century ago by Bishop Tepano Jaussen from the dictation of an Easter Island chief named Metoro. Passages cover the early discovery and settlement of Easter Island and sequences of formulae for use as protective charms. A vocabulary of the words encountered is included.
Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers
Volume 19 1990
Forum: Easter Island (1 p) Gordon Hislop & Marshall Payn 19-p 14
Hislop, a Chief of the Maoris, congratulates Fell on the "news from Easter Island ... What a wonderful success..." Payn passes on a phone conversation he had with Petero Edmunds of Easter Island. Edmunds had met with the local Council of Elders and explained to them Barry's premises for the translation of the Rongorongo tablets. The Council members readily equated Barry's premises with Easter Island tradition concerning "reverse talking" --i.e., person A speaking to person B so that person C cannot understand the conversation. Reverse talking called for the using of words which, when spoken, sounded very close to the words they actually meant, but taken literally were gibberish. Payn says that Petero was quite optimistic about "the accuracy of your translation."
Forum: Secret Languages of Polynesia (1 p) Likeke McBride 19-p 15
Says that Fell's Easter Island hypothesis was upheld by none other than the late Mary Kawena Pukui (a co-author of the Hawaiian Dictionary). Over 20 years ago she told the author that "obscure talking" was an integral part of the game Loku. The author cites other cases of "secret languages" known to have been employed by Polynesians. [Buchanan note, July 2000: The Easter Islanders even have a special word pon-ko = "noun: a jargon by which the logical order of the syllables in a word is changed so as to talk without letting the rest learn of the subject discussed; as a transitive verb: to talk jargon." A US example would be "Pig Latin."]
Deciphering the Easter Island Tablets, Part 2 (27 pp) Barry Fell 19-p 250
This is a continuation of the article in Vol. 18 on the decipherment of the Kohau Rongorongo of Easter Island. He mentions letters of support from Petero Edmunds of the Easter Island Council of Elders and Likeke McBride of Hawaii as well as Maui Pomare, a leading Maori chief and scholar. He also heard from Gordon Hislop, an Otago chief. In this article, Fell gives a proposed reading of the opening passage of the Kohau known as Tahua using Thomas Bartel's transcription of the writing on the tablet published in 1958. A catalog of 270 Rapanui ideograms is given as well as the meanings of the phonoglyphs.
Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers
Volume 20/1, 1991
Deciphering the Easter Island Tablets, Part 3 (16 pp) Barry Fell 20/1-p 122
This is a continuation of the article begun in Vol. 18 on the decipherment of the Kohau Rongorongo of Easter Island. Fell explains that the vocalizations of the Easter Island hieroglyphics comprise prosonomastic language, meaningless in itself, but comprehensible when the punning transforms are recognized. Polynesian scholars have written Fell to support this finding.
Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers
Volume 21 1992
Deciphering the Easter Island Tablets Part 5: Maui and the Fire Goddess (10 pp) Barry Fell 21-p 31
The author continues his series on the decipherment of the Rongorongo inscriptions. Fell reveals a masterful knowledge of Maori myths and culture.
Deciphering the Easter Island Tablets Part 6: Powers of the Tohunga (10 pp) Barry Fell 21-p 41
The author completes his series on the decipherment of the Rongorongo inscriptions.
In a moment of inspiration Barry Fell realized that the Rongo Rongo script was not plain text in the Polynesian language. It was a specific form of hidden text. Some phonetically similar words were substituted for the intended-meaning words. There is a somewhat similar example of 'double talk' in England, among the Cockneys of London. I happen to have a 3 volume encyclopedic dictionary that has a 9 page section on this which it calls 'rhyming slang.' For example, a 'wife' is a 'jane'. But the word 'jane' is omitted and instead 'ball and chain' is substituted... The result of this type of communication is that only a knowledgeable hearer understands the speaker, although he/she might be familiar with the language spoken. It's said that Polynesian workers used such a language-form so that their bosses couldn't understand what they said to one another...
The Easter Island Council of Elders agreed with Barry Fell's translation -- "Based on the premise for Person A speaking to Person B so that Person C cannot understand the conversation. It's called 'reverse talking.'"
The Mayan texts were produced by practitioners of received religion.
Actually, it was more complicated than that. People cut down the trees, since they were used to carve out boats. They were the largest palms ever known, even larger than the Chilean Wine Palm - the largest non-extinct palm tree. Supposedly, the trunk of this tree could exceed 7 feet in diameter. The tree was not only the source of wood for their outriggers, but also a source of food and fruit.
New ones didn't grow because the rats gnawed and ate the seeds of the palm. Rats didn't cut down the trees, people did. You had to wonder what went through the guy's head who cut down the last tree...
Anyway, rats were introduced to the island by the people - probaby accidentally as is always the case.
Once the palms died out - along with all the other flora and fauna - the locals had no mobility. There was no more source of wood to build outriggers, so they could no longer trade with other islands, nor could they go out to sea. They were basically 'shipwrecked'.
Easter Island's End by Jared DiamondEnjoy. Happy New Year!