LSA 369: Rongorongo

In this lecture we'll cover the "talking boards of the Pacific", the Rongorongo of Easter Island. Despite about 130 years of concerted effort to understand this script, very little is really known about it. One of the most fundamental questions is whether it is really a writing system (in the narrow sense we have defined that in this course), or merely a kind of mnemonic device. Most experts on Rongorongo see overwhelming evidence that the system actually encoded the Easter Island Rapanui language, and thus should count as a writing system. In my view the evidence for that conclusion is pitiful.

A great source of information about Rongorongo is the web site


Easter Island today (from the top of Mt. Terevaka)

Ethnography of the Tablets

  • Father Eugène Eyraud (1864)

    "Dans toutes les cases on trouve des tablettes de bois ou des bâtons couverts de plusieurs espèces de caractères hiéroglyphiques: ce sont des figures d'animaux inconnues dans l'île, que les indigènes tracent au moyen de pierres tranchantes. Chaque figure a son nom; mais le peu de cas qu'ils font de ces tablettes m'incline à penser que ces caractères, restes d'une écriture primitive, sont pour eux maintenant un usage qu'ils conservent sans en chercher le sens."

  • 1873, Etienne Jaussen, Bishop of Tahiti, asks an Easter Islander, Metoro, who worked on a plantation in Tahiti and who claims a knowledge of Rongorongo to read some tablets (or photographs of tablets). He proceeds to read, but seems merely to be describing the signs rather than actually reading.

    Here an example of Jaussen's catalog (see

  • William J. Thomson (Paymaster, US Navy) 1891. Excerpt from "A man called Ure Vaeiko, one of the patriarchs of the island, professes to have been under instructions in the art of hieroglyphic reading at the time of the Peruvian visit, and claims to understand most of the characters. Negotiations were opened with him for a translation of the two tablets purchased; but he declined to furnish any information, on the ground that it had been forbidden by the priests. Presents of money and valuables were sent him from time to time, but he invariably replied to all overtures that he was now old and feeble and had but a short time to live, and declined most positively to ruin his chances for salvation by doing what his Christian instructors had forbidden. Finally the old fellow, to avoid temptation, took to the hills with the determination to remain in hiding until after the departure of the Mohican. It was a matter of the utmost importance that the subject should be thoroughly investigated before leaving the island, and unscrupulous strategy was the only resource after fair means had failed. Just before sundown one evening, shortly before the day appointed for our sailing, heavy clouds rolled up from the southwest and indications pointed to bad weather. In a heavy down-pour of rain we crossed the island from Vinapu to Mateveri with Mr. Salmon, and found, as had been expected, that old Ure Vaeiko had sought the shelter of his own home on this rough night. He was asleep when we entered and took charge of the establishment. When he found escape impossible he became sullen, and refused to look at or touch a tablet. As a compromise it was proposed that he should relate some of the ancient traditions. This was readily acceded to, because the opportunity of relating the legends to an interested audience did not often occur, and the positive pleasure to be derived from such an occasion could not be neglected. During the recital certain stimulants that had been provided for such an emergency were produced, and though not pressed upon our ancient friend, were kept prominently before him until, as the night grew old and the narrator weary, he was included as the 'cup that cheers' made its occasional rounds. A judicious indulgence in present comforts dispelled all fears in regard to the future state, and at an auspicious moment the photographs of the tablets owned by the bishop were produced for inspection. Old Ure Vaeiko had never seen a photograph before, and was surprised to find how faithfully they reproduced the tablets which he had known in his young days. A tablet would have met with opposition, but no objection could be urged against a photograph, especially something possessed by the good bishop, whom he had been instructed to reverence. The photographs were recognized immediately, and the appropriate legend related with fluency and without hesitation from beginning to end. The story of all the tablets of which we had a knowledge was finally obtained, the words of the native being written down by Mr. Salmon as they were uttered, and afterwards translated into English."

    According to Thomson, Ure Vaeiko sang a procreation hymn Atua Mata-Riri when shown a picture of the Small Washington Tablet (though Fischer disagrees); and another text, Apai, when shown a picture of table Keiti.

    The text of Atua Mata-Riri is apparently a creation myth of the form "X mated with Y and produced Z".

    (Guy argues Atua Mata Riri might just be a "spelling bee")

  • Katherine Routledge (1914-1915) (see Katherine Routledge, 1919, The Mystery of Easter Island, republished by Adventures Unlimited Press, and see also interviewed several Easter Islanders who were involved in the Rongorongo recitation ceremonies about the nature of those ceremonies.

    The Corpus

    The main extant tablets are:

    Properties of the Script

    Attempts at Decipherment

    Final thoughts

    What do we know for certain? The only text that seems to be relatively certainly interpreted is the calendar on Tablet Mamari, first identified as such by Barthel, and supported in a very nice paper by Jacques Guy:

    Guy, Jacques. 1991. "The Lunar Calendar of Tablet Mamari." Journal de la Societé des Océanistes.

    So is Rongorongo a real writing system? If it isn't, is there a possible model for what it is?

    The ethnographer Alfred Métraux proposed that Rongorongo is a mnemonic device rather than a way of representing the Rapanui language directly, though he later backed away from that belief, due to Barthel's work. (But then Barthel's decipherment attempts were never successful.)

    One possible model is the script of the Naxi (Sino-Tibetan), a minority people of China.

    Naxi Dongba texts have only recently been translated, in this case with the help of living Dongba experts. For the most part the script does not represent language in the normal sense that a writing system does: rather, "several characters may tell a complete story, and sometimes, a character in one script might not have the same meaning in another script." (see In other words, a significant function of Dongba script is to provide mnemonic cues to texts that the reader knows.

    If Rongorongo is like Dongba, then the hopes of ever deciphering significant portions of it are slim indeed. Previous attempts to decipher Dongba without the help of native experts failed.