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.
"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
http://www.rongorongo.org/routldge/243.html) interviewed several
Easter Islanders who were involved in the Rongorongo recitation
ceremonies about the nature of those ceremonies.
The main extant tablets are:
Tahua (recto, from Fischer):
Small Santiago (recto):
Great Santiago (verso):
Small London (recto):
Great St. Petersburg (from Fischer):
Small St. Petersburg (from Fischer):
Atua Mata Riri (Small Washington -- recto):
(Fischer, p 458: "Thomson (1981) or his editor at the Smithsonian,
mistakenly called [this tablet] `Atua Matariri' after the first name
of Ure Va'e Iko's procreation chant that was sung to the photograph of
one of Bishop Jaussen's tablets, not to this one")
Great Washington (from Fischer):
Properties of the Script
"Reverse boustrophedon", read from bottom of tablet to top. This is
known from oral tradition, and also because long copied portions wrap
in a way that suggests that reading order.
Many texts show lots of repeats of the same character in slightly
different "poses", making it look a lot like a comic strip or crude animation:
Large portions of text are copied among various tablets. This was
first discovered by Leningrad school children visiting the Museum of
Anthropology and Ethnology in 1940.
For some examples see:
Where do the figures come from? Not surprisingly some glyphs (though
not as many as some people seem to imply) are related to common
symbols used in petroglyphs. Note the "birdmen" and the double headed
bird in the petroglyphs from Orongo below:
Georgia Lee. 1992.
Prayers to the Gods. Institute of Archaeology, University of
California, Los Angeles, Monumenta Archaeologica 17. Page 71.
Finally, Guy has shown that the glyphs may be fused. Consider the
following from lines 3, 4 and 6 from tablet Aruku-Kurenga:
The symbol on line 3 seems to correspond to two symbols on lines 4 and
6: it seems to consist of a fusion of the two glyphs representing the
bird-headed figure, and the lens-shaped glyph with the two raised
arms. It also seems as if the fused glyph is to be read upwords
(i.e. upwards catenation in the terminology of Sproat 2000). (Jacques
Guy. 1982. "Fused glyphs in the Easter Island script." Journal of
the Polynesian Society. 91:445-447)
Attempts at Decipherment
Carroll (1892): claimed a decipherment on the basis of the language
Guillaume de Hevesy's claimed that Rongorongo was related to the Indus
valley script. He noted a large number of similar looking symbols
between the scripts.
(From: Andrew Robinson, 1995. The Story of Writing. London, Thames
and Hudson. page 147)
Most "decipherments" have proposed a largely logographic or even
"ideographic" analysis. These included:
The Leningrad team (Butinov, Knorozov, Federova), though they also
claimed to have found semantic-phonetic components like in Chinese.
Thus: is supposed to be
rangi "send, visit", decomposed as: MOTION (lefthand
symbol of a running figure), with rangi, meaning "sky", but
used here for its phonetic value.
Thomas Barthel. 1957. Grundlagen zur Entzifferung der
Barthel provided the first catalog of the tablets and a catalog of the
glyphset as well as a corpus based on etchings. But it is claimed that
about 7-10% of Barthel's tracings are errorful. On top of this, his
coding system (as any coding system) is a judgment call, and the
system is "lossy".
Barthel's coding system is based, somewhat algorithmically, on the
form of the characters. See:
The Cercle d'Études sur l'Île de Pâques et la
Polynésie has extended Barthel's system.
There has also been dissatisfaction with his glyphset, with many
people arguing that he made too many distinctions.
The main problem with Barthel's approach is that he relied on the
assumption that Metoro's chantings were a key to the decipherment.
The Santiago staff is the only text where there are apparent text
divisions. Fischer analyzes the groups on the staff as representing
the type of procreational text sung by Ure Va'e Iko in his Atua
Mata Riri. Thus he proposes that be translated as "Te manu mau
ki 'ai ki roto ki te ika, [ka pû] te ra'â", "all the birds
copulated with the fish and there issued forth the sun". He argues
that the grabbing hand on the bird represents the word mau
'all' (ma'u = 'grab' in Old Rapanui, hence a rebus).
Crucial in Fischer's decipherment is the presence of the
phallus-like appendage apparently representing "copulate". But he then
goes on to suggest that a number of other phallus-less texts also
represent procreation chants. (There is a phallus-less sequence
BIRD-FISH-SUN on the tablet Échancrée.)
Fischer has been roundly criticized by Jacques Guy. See,
and elsewhere. Indeed there are a number of problems with Fischer's
- The only actual "translation" he proposes is the one shown
- While Atua Mata Riri may serve as the model, the verse that
Fischer claims to have translated does not correspond to any of the
verses that Ure Va'e Iko sang.
There was a previous proposal by the Russian team to the effect that
the phallus symbol is actually a patronymic, and that the Staff thus
represents a kind of genealogy. Since legend has it that this staff
belonged to the Ariki (King), such an interpretation is not
implausible. Oddly, Fischer seems not to say much about this
Even if Fischer is correct, his analysis does not support his strong
conclusions that the "rongorongo code has finally broken"
(Rongorongo, p. 261) or that this is the "first
scientifically verifiable phonetic breakthrough". With the exception
of the word mau, all of the symbols in his single translation
would appear to denote what they depict. Thus the system, if anything,
would be purely logographic (not phonetic).
But there have also been claims that rongorongo is actually a
syllabary once you figure out how to decompose it into the right
number of basic units (around 70 for Rapanui). This includes Macri in
the Daniels and Bright volume, and also Konstantin Pozdniakov, in:
Pozdniakov, Konstantin. 1996. "Les bases du déchiffrement de
l'écriture de l'île de Pâques". Journal de la
Societé des Océanistes, 103(2), pages, 289--303.
There is just one teensy little problem with these analyses: neither
Macri nor Pozdniakov have published their decomposition, so until they
do, there is little reason why one should accept their claims to have
found a decomposition.
Pozdniakov does a little better than Macri. He at least does some
statistical analysis that purports to show that the statistical
distribution of his decomposed syllable set correlates with the
distribution of syllables in the Rapanui language, for example, using
the text Apai as the
source of the linguistic syllable distribution. This results in a plot
like the following, where the two curves are claimed to be
But Pozdniakov would appear to have merely re-discovered Zipf's law
(well, not quite since the populations of syllables are too small for
the curves to be truly Zipfian). Using this argument I can show that
the letters (upper and lower case, including punctuation) in the first
12,000 words of the English version of Genesis encode Rapanui.
In any case, if Pozdniakov is right he ought to be able to take his
reduced glyph set, use the frequencies to match them one-for-one with
the syllables, and then proceed to translate. The fact that this
hasn't happened would seem to suggest that things cannot be so simple.
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
Guy, Jacques. 1991. "The Lunar Calendar of Tablet Mamari." Journal de la Societé
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
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.