Rongorongo inscription on wooden tablet.

Anthropology: Easter Island’s Undeciphered Writing System (Rongorongo)


Despite all that is known about the Rapa Nui of Easter Island, who continue to live in their thousands, a series of uniquely inscribed tablets taken from the island over 100 years ago remains minimally interpreted and largely unfathomable. The writing system used for these inscriptions, known commonly as Rongorongo, continues to perplex researchers after decades of attempts at decoding its rows of mysterious plant-, animal-, and human-like symbols.

Sample text in the Rongorongo script
Source: Omniglot

With no Rosetta Stone or remaining scribes available for such inscriptions, the question may ultimately not be whether Rongorongo can be deciphered, but rather what the many efforts to do so can tell us about the art of translation.

What was Rongorongo and what did it mean?

The time and nature of Rongorongo’s origin remain unknown. Oral tradition, for one, accounts that Easter Island’s first king, ariki Hotu Matu’a, brought sixty-seven tablets that corresponded with the sixty-seven Maori wisdoms. These ranged from skills like sailing to sciences like astronomy.

Much research suggests, however, that Rongorongo was first invented following the arrival of the Spaniards to Easter Island in 1770.

A voyage undertaken by Captain Don Phelipe Gonzalez culminated in the signing of a deed of possession to the King of Spain. For the Rapa Nui, who signed the deed with their own written symbols, this was the first exposure to Western scripture. The similarity of the Rapa Nui’s signature to Rongorongo symbols has been a subject of scholarly debate, raising the question of whether Rongorongo had already existed on Easter Island prior to Spanish colonization.

The Spaniards’ first encounter with the Rapa Nui was documented as follows:

“The number of natives seems to be about 1,200; they are amiable and did not bear any weapons when they came to us; the men are tall, strong and well constituted, of great vivacity and agility; the women are few and generally short; all are of a dark colour, but not at all black, and their figure is well formed; the pronunciation is easy, because they used to repeat without difficulty all that we said: in spite of that we were unable to understand their language.”

Language barrier aside, what we do know is that the art of drawing was standard among Easter Island natives; the walls of their houses often sported inscriptions of boats in full sail. Moreover, the fact that the Rapa Nui intuitively signed the deed with symbols, as opposed to with some imitation of the Spaniards’ written text, suggests that inscriptions may have already been part of their cultural normalcy.

Closeup of Rongorongo inscriptions.
Source: Emadion

Why the name “Rongorongo”?

The Rapa Nui term “Rongorongo” has been translated in a variety of ways, from nouns like “message,” “study,” “chant,” and “recitation,” to verbs such as “recite,” “declaim,” and “chant out.” Its loose meaning may have been adopted from the expression “kohau motu mo rongorongo,” which refers to a set of lines chosen specifically for chanting.

Rongorongo’s more colloquial name is “kohau rongorongo,” with “kohau” translating generally as “wood used for making the hull of a canoe.” Altogether, in reference to the wood Rongorongo was often inscribed on, “kohau rongorongo” may be understood as “recitation wood” or a “narrator staff.”

The writing system was initially “discovered” during the 19th century by Eugène Eyraud, a French monk who landed on Easter Island in 1864 and first mentioned Rongorongo in an 1866 report. Being among the first missionaries to inhabit the island, Eyraud informed his Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary that:

“Wooden tablets or canes covered in hieroglyphics are found in every hut. They are animal figures unbeknownst in the island that the natives draw with sharp stones. Each figure has a name. Plus, the little attention they pay to these tablets makes me think that these characters, remains of a primitive language, are to them something to preserve rather than gather meaning from.”

By this time, local knowledge of Rongorongo had already begun to fade. In the 1880s, however, Rapa Nui elders are said to have formed a new version of the script that they used for purposes of both inscribing carvings and increasing their material value.

Restored tablet containing Rongorongo inscriptions.
Source: Omniglot

Following the arrival of Eyraud and his congregation in the 1860s, twenty-six or twenty-seven wooden tablets containing Rongorongo inscriptions were collected and exported to Europe within a handful of years. Today, they remain separated from one another in museums around the world, from Honolulu to London, St. Petersburg, and just about everywhere in between.

Only half of these Rongorongo tablets are unanimously believed to be authentic. Nonetheless, some date back as far as the early 17th century, and among the ones that Eyraud’s congregation first exported are those named Tahua, Aruku Kurenga, and Mamari.

Easter Island natives are said to have believed that tablets inscribed with Rongorongo contained mana or spiritual power. Those of the Rapa Nui who would have been knowledgeable in Rongorongo and its associated powers included royals, chiefs, priests, and teachers. These authority figures would likely have both inscribed the tablets and recited them at important gatherings.

Sadly, all such aficionados of Rongorongo were gone by the late 19th century, having succumbed to either natural causes, imported disease, or colonial extermination efforts. By the time academic linguistics were first attempting to decipher Rongorongo from the two dozen or so discovered tablets, all hope of thoroughly understanding the writing system’s nature was lost.

Still, inscriptions later found on European oars and conifer wood, which is non-native to Easter Island, suggest that Rongorongo remained in use for some years, even decades, after initial colonial contact.

Historical inscription and application

Oral tradition says that Rongorongo was inscribed not only on wooden tablets, but also on banana leaves using either obsidian flakes or old shark teeth. Leaves served effectively as makeshift paper and draft boards for important inscriptions. But they would eventually rot and scribes quickly began to need more permanent templates like wood. The preferred option was that of the native toromiro, a legume flowering tree, but Oceania rosewood was another type used.

As Eyraud described Rongorongo:

“One finds in all the houses [on Rapa Nui] wooden tablets and staffs covered with sort of hieroglyphic characters. These are figures of animals unknown to the island, which natives trace by means of sharp stones.”

Rongorongo has been found to consist of about 120 symbols, as identified in the 1950s by German ethnologist Thomas Barthel. That said, there are nearly 500 other symbols that are believed to be variant forms. The 120 most basic ones make up numerous combinations to comprise a total of 1,500 to 2,000 unique symbols.

Visually, they appear to represent everything from birds, fish, and plants, to weapons, gods, and religious incidents, to small hooks and various geometric shapes. None of the symbols are either spaced apart or separated in a clear or intentional way.

The style of the Rongorongo writing system is known as inverted or reversed boustrophedon, which indicates that every second line is written upside down and in the opposite direction. This requires the reader to regularly rotate the tablet 180 degrees to read each line. A lack of wear on the sides of the tablets, however, suggests that they were not regularly rotated and perhaps not even intended to be used in such a manner.

Rongorongo tablet with lines showing how to read it.
Source: Imagina Rapa Nui

Some analysts have even insisted that the tablets are meant to only be rotated once, since the highest line inscribed on them often faces upside down itself. If this is correct, the reader should then first look at all the lines that face downwards, before flipping the tablet after getting to the bottom to read all the lines facing the opposite way.

What was the nature of inscribing tablets?

Whether priests or teachers, scribes of Rongorongo were known as tangatarongorongo. Evidence shows they did not refrain from making corrections, albeit quite rarely, on the same tablets. Edits could be applied by means of omitting, re-inserting, or covering up incorrect or unintended symbols, as well as by adding symbols in excess space around the tablets’ edges.

Figure 1. – Minor scribal corrections
Source: OpenEdition Journals

Evidence of such corrections suggests that the scribes, while also valuing the aesthetic of their inscriptions, still obeyed the symbolic rules of Rongorongo and cared about the accuracy of the inscribed messages and meanings. Furthermore, analysts have said identifiable corrections are both natural and expected of a proper writing system.

But, based on the similar style of inscriptions among Rongorongo tablets, it is possible that just one or two scribes were responsible for all surviving works. In fact, several tablets contain almost identical segments of symbols, and particular sequences are even inscribed multiple times on the same tablets. What can be drawn from this is that there was considerable value seen in repeating older texts nearly verbatim.

Figure 6. – Glyph variations in repetitive sequences
Source: OpenEdition Journals

It may very well be that certain Rongorongo inscriptions were repeated from memory. Regardless, the precision and attention to detail on the many symbols imply that the scribes intended such inscriptions to be final copies; they were not merely practicing inscriptions or refining their craft.

They likely added texts in short fragments, as opposed to longer sequences taking up entire tablets. These shorter sequences were possibly based off their inscriptions on banana leaves, on which they would have had much less space.

Cracking the code

Interestingly enough, the first attempt to interpret Rongorongo was by an Easter Island native, either at the request or interest of Bishop Florentin-Étienne Jaussen. Now, more than 150 years later, dozens of in-depth analyses and attempted decipherments of the tablets by expert ethnographers, anthropologists, and linguists have made little progress.

Part of the challenge of decoding Rongorongo is the universal unfamiliarity with how its symbols are combined and modified and the language or dialect it actually corresponds to. What remains undetermined is whether Rongorongo purely originated as its own writing system or was influenced by foreign scripts before or after the arrival of the Spaniards. Also uncertain is whether it is truly a writing system at all or simply a means of pre-literary communication – perhaps something more along the lines of cave paintings.

Other factors greatly complicating the decoding process include the lack of inscriptions available for comparison. Among all existing tablets, only about 15,000 legible symbols can be identified. Limited understanding of cultural and historical context and illustration further complicate the interpretation process.

Closeup of Rongorongo inscriptions on wood.
Source: Emadion

What few examples of the older Rapa Nui language do exist vary minimally in style and genre, likely making them of little use to a broader contextual understanding of Rongorongo. It also does not help that the modern Rapa Nui language now largely overlaps with Tahitian, a language of indigenous people from French Polynesia. Consequently, Rapa Nui has evolved to become quite distant from its older form that would have been most relevant to the Rongorongo script.

Not as easy as it sounds

There is ultimately no simple key for decoding Rongorongo, as it is distinctive in and of itself and its symbols do not represent other letters or alphabets. And while the characters of most written languages today represent sounds or letters, Rongorongo symbols are believed to be idiosyncratic mnemonic. This means they are intended to communicate by means of metaphorical representation.

Research has largely determined Rongorongo to be neither purely logo-based nor purely syllable-based. And, if it was in fact developed solely on Easter Island, it could be among the only independently evolved writing systems to ever exist in the world.

The mysterious Rongorongo writing of Easter Island
Source: Ancient Origins

Despite uncertainty as to what Rongorongo’s individual symbols mean or represent, there has at least been great speculation as to what the inscriptions may discuss. Some of the most probable topics include genealogy, navigation, astronomy, or agriculture. Certain symbols are even believed to represent specific dates and genealogical information despite, to all intents and purposes, remaining undeciphered.

Perhaps the most notable of decoding attempts revealed that one particular tablet, while still incomprehensible, contains content most likely referencing a type of lunar calendar. Evidence shows the inscription to address or analyze the changing diameter of the moon, thus also demonstrating a degree of scholarship.

Rongorongo will probably only continue to be a mystery, with its only two dozen or so inscriptions unfortunately separated around the world in museums and the like. Without being able to directly compare all Rongorongo tablets in the same room, the prospect of getting closer to some kind of translation is not promising. Still, what can likely be concluded is that the symbols are intended to be recognized by their general form, rather than by their particular features and imperfections.

What can we learn from Rongorongo?

While we may never truly and fully know what the scribes of Rongorongo were documenting or communicating, perhaps we can instead reflect on what this enigma has taught us more generally.

Sometimes we cannot simply approach a writing system as if it were compatible with others around the world. If Rongorongo did in fact originate independently, free of influence from any other language, then it must be approached for what it is, and not as if it were based on logos or syllables.

Even if no form of alphabet can be identified, categorizing symbols and sequences of inscriptions can still prove effective toward understanding a writing system’s patterns. And while some symbols should be interpreted literally based on each of their fine details, others are meant to be understood by their more general shapes and the metaphors they allude to.

Wood artisan Benedicto Tuki Tepano holding a rongorongo tablet.
Source: Atlas Obscura

Better yet, despite being unable to translate Rongorongo whatsoever, we see that it has still been possible to give a lot of speculation and insight into the topics of its inscriptions. This shows that, at least in some circumstances, word-by-word or symbol-by-symbol translation may not necessarily be needed to understand the gist of an inscription. We may never find out what the Rongorongo scribes were expressing on their wooden tablets, but we can still conclude that they were knowledgeable about the moon and stars.

Above all, when discoveries of phenomena like Rongorongo are made, efforts to find native experts should be swift and instinctive. Ethnographers, anthropologists, and linguists alike have dedicated themselves to deciphering the Rongorongo tablets for decades. But it goes without saying that the prospect of understanding the inscriptions would be much more promising had we been able to consult with the scribes themselves.

In the context of the many dying indigenous languages in our world, it is vital that we educate ourselves as much as we can while native speakers still remain to assist us. Perhaps few extinct writing systems will ever prove as challenging to decipher as Rongorongo has, but we may never know for sure until it becomes too late. The more we can learn now, the more we will understand tomorrow.


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