Mysterious writing from Easter Island yet undesciphred

The Small Santiago Tablet; dimensions 319mm x 122mm


Rongo-rongo (pronounced /ˈrɒŋɡoʊˈrɒŋɡoʊ/ in English, [ˈɾoŋoˈɾoŋo] in Rapa Nui)  is a system of glyphs discovered in the 19th century on Easter Island that appears to be writing or proto-writing. Despite numerous attempts at decipherment it couldn’t be read. If rongo-rongo proves to be writing, this could be one of the three or four independent inventions of writing in human history.

Two dozen wooden objects bearing rongo-rongo 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 hich may include short rongo-rongo inscriptions. Oral history suggests that only a small elite was ever literate and that the tablets were sacred.

Authentic rongo-rongo 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, such asand, have characteristic protuberances on each side of the head, possibly representing ears or eyes.

Individual texts are conventionally known by a single uppercase letter and a name, such as Tablet C, the Mamari Tablet. The somewhat variable names may be descriptive or indicate where the object is kept, as in the Oar, the Snuffbox, the Small Santiago Tablet, and the Santiago Staff.

Rongo-rongo is the modern name for the inscriptions. In the RapaNui language t 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 rongo-rongo, “lines incised for chanting out”, shortened to kohau rongo-rongo 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.

Some authors have understood the ta‘u in kohau ta‘u to refer to a separate form of writing distinct from rongo-rongo. Thomas Sylvester Barthel (1923–1997) a German ethnologist and epigrapher who catalogued the undeciphered rongo-rongo script recorded that, “The Islanders had another writing (the so-called ‘ta‘u script’) which recorded their annals and other secular matters, but this has disappeared.”

The forms of the glyphs are standardized contours of living organisms and geometric designs about one centimeter high. The wooden tablets are irregular in shape and, in many instances, fluted (tablets B, E, G, H, O, Q, and T), with the glyphs carved in shallow channels running the length of the tablets, as can be seen in the image of tablet G at right. It is thought that irregular and often blemished pieces of wood were used in their entirety rather than squared off due to the scarcity of wood on the island.

Rongo-rongo 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.

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. In the closeup image at right, a glyph is composed of two parts connected by a hair-line cut; this is a typical convention for this shape. Several researchers, including Barthel, believe that these superficial cuts were made by obsidian, and that the texts were 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, as can be seen repeatedly in the closeup of one end of tablet B below. However, Barthel was also told that 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.

Tablet N, on the other hand, shows no sign of shark teeth. The glyphs of this text appear to have been incised with a sharpened bone, as evidenced by the shallowness and width of the grooves. N also displays secondary working with obsidian flakes to elaborate details within the finished contour lines. No other rongo-rongo inscription reveals such graphic extravagance.

Other tablets appear to have been cut with a steel blade, often rather crudely. Although steel knives were available after the arrival of the Spanish, this does cast suspicion on the authenticity of 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 below, and more clearly on sea-turtle petroglyphs) but which often resemble ears. Birds are common; many resemble the frigatebird 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.


Oral tradition holds that either Hotu Matu‘a or Tu‘u ko Iho, the legendary founder(s) of Rapa Nui, brought 67 tablets from their homeland. The same founder is also credited with bringing indigenous plants such as the toromiro. However, there is no homeland likely to have had a tradition of writing in Polynesia or even in South America. Thus rongo-rongo appears to have been an internal development. Given that few if any of the Rapa Nui people remaining on the island in the 1870s could read the glyphs, it is likely that only a small minority were ever literate. Indeed, early visitors were told that literacy was a privilege of the ruling families and priests who were all kidnapped in the Peruvian slaving raids or died soon afterwards in the resulting epidemics.

Dating the tablets

Little direct dating has been done. Tablet Q (Small Saint Petersburg) is the sole item that has been carbon dated but the results only constrain the date to sometime after 1680.

Direct dating is not the only evidence. Texts A, P, and V can be dated to the 18th or 19th century by virtue of being inscribed on European oars. In 2005 Catherine Orliac examined under the microscope seven tablets (B, C, G, H, K, Q and L) and calculated that the wood for Tablet Q(Mamari) was cut from the trunk of a tree some 15 meters (50 ft) tall, and Easter Island has long been deforested of trees that size. Analysis of charcoal indicates that the forest disappeared in the first half of the 17th century. Jacob Roggeveen, the dutch explorer who discovered Easter Island in 1722, described the island as “destitute of large trees” and in 1770 González de Ahedo wrote, “Not a single tree is to be found capable of furnishing a plank so much as six inches [15 cm] in width.” Forster, with Cook’s expedition of 1774, reported that “there was not a tree upon the island which exceeded the height of 10 feet [3 m]”.

All of these methods date the wood, not the inscription. However, Pacific rosewood is not durable, and is unlikely to survive long in Easter Island’s climate.On the other hand, glyph 067 () is thought to represent the extinct Easter Island palm, which seems to have disappeared from the island’s pollen record circa 1650, suggesting that the script is at least that old. The start of forest clearing for agriculture has been dated to circa 1200, implying a date of the 13th century or later.

Eugène Eyraud, a lay friar of the Congrégation de Picpus, landed on Easter Island on January 2, 1864, on the 24th day of his departure from Valparaíso. He was to remain on Easter Island for nine months, evangelizing its inhabitants. He wrote an account of his stay in which he reports his discovery of the tablets:

“In every hut one finds wooden tablets or sticks covered in several sorts of hieroglyphic characters: They are depictions of animals unknown on the island, which the natives draw with sharp stones. Each figure has its own name; but the scant attention they pay to these tablets leads me to think that these characters, remnants of some primitive writing, are now for them a habitual practice which they keep without seeking its meaning. “


In 1868 the Bishop of Tahiti, Florentin-Étienne “Tepano” Jaussen, received a gift from the recent Catholic converts of Easter Island. It was a long cord of human hair, a fishing line perhaps, wound around a small wooden board covered in hieroglyphic writing. Stunned at the discovery, he wrote to Father Hippolyte Roussel on Easter Island to collect all the tablets and to find natives capable of translating them. But Roussel could only recover a few, and the islanders could not agree on how to read them.

Yet Eyraud had seen hundreds of tablets only two years earlier. What happened to the missing tablets is a matter of conjecture. Eyraud had noted how little interest their owners had in them.

As European-introduced diseases and raids by Peruvian slavers, including a final devastating raid in 1862 and a subsequent smallpox epidemic, had reduced the Rapa Nui population to under two hundred by the 1870s, it is possible that literacy had been wiped out by the time Eyraud discovered the tablets in 1866.

Thus in 1868 Jaussen could recover only a few tablets, with three more acquired by Captain Gana of the Chilean corvette O’Higgins in 1870. In the 1950s Barthel found the decayed remains of half a dozen tablets in caves, in the context of burials. However, no glyphs could be salvaged.

Of the 26 commonly accepted texts that survive, only half are in good condition and authentic beyond doubt.

As with most undeciphered scripts, there are many fanciful interpretations and claimed translations of rongo-rongo. However, apart from a portion of one tablet which has been shown to have to do with a lunar calendar, none of the texts are understood. There are three serious obstacles to decipherment, assuming rongo-rongo is truly writing: the small number of remaining texts, the lack of context such as illustrations in which to interpret them, and the poor attestation of the Old Rapanui language since modern Rapanui is heavily mixed with Tahitian and is therefore unlikely to closely reflect the language of the tablets.

The prevailing opinion is that rongo-rongo is not true writing but proto-writing, or even a more limited mnemonic device for genealogy, choreography, navigation, astronomy, or agriculture. For example, the Atlas of Languages states, “It was probably used as a memory aid or for decorative purposes, not for recording the Rapanui language of the islanders”. If this is the case, then there is little hope of ever deciphering it.  For those who believe it to be writing, there is debate as to whether rongo-rongo is essentially logographic or syllabic, though it appears to be compatible with neither a pure logography nor a pure syllabary.


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