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Rongorongo is the hieroglyphic script of Easter Island. It has remained a mystery since its discovery. For over a hundred years, controversy has raged over the meaning and source of these enigmatic characters.

There are only 21 known tablets in existence, scattered in museums and private collections. Tiny, remarkably regular glyphs, about one centimeter high, highly stylized and formalized, are carved in shallow grooves running the length of the tablets. Oral tradition has it that scribes used obsidian flakes or shark teeth to cut the glyphs and that writing was brought by the first colonists led by Hotu Matua. Last but not least, of the twenty­one surviving tablets three bear the same text in slightly different "spellings", a fact discovered by three schoolboys of St Petersburg (then Leningrad), just before World War II.

In 1868 newly converted Easter Islanders send to Tepano Jaussen, Bishop of Tahiti, as a token of respect, a long twine of human hair, wound around an ancient piece of wood. Tepano Jaussen examines the gift, and, lifting the twine, discovers that the small board is covered in hieroglyphs.

The bishop, elated at the discovery, writes to Father Hippolyte Roussel on Easter Island, exhorting him to gather all the tablets he can and to seek out natives able to translate them. But only a handful remain of the hundreds of tablets mentioned by Brother Eyraud only a few years earlier in a report to the Father Superior of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart.

Some say they were burnt to please the missionaries who saw in them evil relics of pagan times. Some say they were hidden to save them from destruction. Which side should we believe? Brother Eyraud had died in 1868 without having ever mentioned the tablets to anyone else, not even to his friend Father Zumbohm, who is astounded at the bishop's discovery. Monsignor Jaussen soon locates in Tahiti a laborer from Easter Island, Metoro, who claims to be able to read the tablets. He describes in his notes how Metoro turns each tablet around and around to find its beginning, then starts chanting its contents.

The direction of writing is unique. Starting from the left­hand bottom corner, you proceed from left to right and, at the end of the line, you turn the tablet around before you start reading the next line. Indeed, the orientation of the hieroglyphs is reversed every other line. Imagine a book in which every other line is printed back ­to­front and upside ­down. That is how the tablets are written! Jaussen was not able to decipher the tablets.

There are also many zoomorphic figures, birds especially, fish and lizards less often. The most frequent figure looks very much like the frigate bird, which happens to have been the object of a cult, as it was associated with Make­Make, the supreme god.

When you compare the tablets which bear the same text, when you analyze repeated groups of signs, you realize that writing must have followed rules. The scribe could choose to link a sign to the next, but not in any old way. You could either carve a mannikin standing, arms dangling, followed by some other sign, or the same mannikin holding that sign with one hand. You could either carve a simple sign (a leg, a crescent) separate from the next, or rotate it 90 degrees counter-clockwise and carve the next sign on top of it.

All we can reasonably hope to decipher some day is some two to three lines of the tablet commonly called Mamari. You can clearly see that they have to do with the moon. There are several versions of the ancient lunar calendar of Easter Island.