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
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
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.