Introduction


The purpose of this website is to present a possible solution for the decipherment of rongorongo, the indigenous writing system of Easter Island. It builds forth on the syllabary that was tested on three tablet inscriptions in Words out of wood: Proposals for the decipherment of the Easter Island script (De Laat 2009). The unevenness of those results can be attributed largely to the failure to correctly identify the subject matter of the texts. Unfortunately, the traditional information on the content of the rongorongo inscriptions has always been vague and contradictory. My past years have therefore been dedicated to a more thorough examination of the Rapanui corpus of chants and myths.

A substantial part of the traditional material that was recorded by various researchers since the second half of the 19th century is dedicated to a relatively obscure initiation ritual in which young children called neru were isolated from society in caves or houses "to become beautiful". As elsewhere in Polynesia, this was achieved through bleaching of the skin by avoiding the sunlight and fattening of the body by eating special food and inactivity. Although on Easter Island information on this rite de passage did not surface before the beginning of the 20th century, there are enough indications that it not only played an important role in the pre-missionary belief system but also that it stood in a special relation to the writing of rongorongo. The most obvious example of this connection can be found in the petroglyphic mural at 'Ana O Keke, a deep cave on the northern cliffs of Poike peninsula which has been pointed out as the place where young girls were secluded. Glyphs of the rongorongo writing system are rare among the island's abundant rock art but in this elaborate inscription several of these signs appear alongside other figurative and abstract motifs.

The petroglyphs at 'Ana O Keke are not the only evidence pointing to a relation between the neru custom and the rongorongo writing. In nearly every instance when Easter Island informants were asked to read from the tablets they produced texts referring directly or indirectly to the neru. Metoro, the informant of bishop Jaussen in 1873, for example, spoke in his improvised recitations of tama heka, "flabby children". Three of the five traditional texts which were chanted by Ure Vaeiko for Thomson and Salmon in 1886 are related to the secluded children, Atu'a Mata Riri being the longest and most important of them. In 1914-1915, Routledge recorded several other texts which to date have remained largely unpublished, a notable exception being the chant starting with He timo te akoako. This old text of which the native informants claimed that it was once part of the rongorongo corpus, has since been identified as being connected to the neru (Fischer 1994b).

Apparently, the neru rituals had already disappeared some time before the arrival of the first missionaries in the 1860's. After the decimation of the population and the destruction of the traditional culture, little detailed knowledge of the custom was preserved. As a result, the surviving neru texts were reinterpreted, extensively reworked, and sometimes merged with other genres. This and the misunderstanding of their true topic has lead to their being characterized as too damaged or too esoteric to allow for a reliable translation. It will be demonstrated here that the situation is less hopeless. When the texts are interpreted in the appropriate cultural framework, they can be relatively easily identified as they share a number of common themes ranging from the metaphors originating in the cult's mythological background to the descriptions of the miserable circumstances of a prolonged stay in a remote coastal cave.

If the hypothesis that the most important of the surviving rongorongo texts are about the neru is correct, several puzzling aspects regarding the inscriptions are resolved. In the first place, it would account for names and classifications such as ranga and ika which have been associated with certain tablets. These terms have been thought to refer to captives and victims of war, but they could easily have applied to the secluded children. Not only does ranga also translate as "exile" and ika as "sacrifice", but the young girls were also metaphorically described as "fish" at a specific stage in the process of their ritual transformation. Secondly, it would explain the presence of astronomical or calendrical content in the inscriptions. In many cultures the periodicity of certain celestial bodies has been connected to the menstrual cycle and to the gestation period. As in other Polynesian societies, the female neru were likely secluded in anticipation of their menarche. At the same time, there are several indications that their stay at 'Ana O Keke was viewed as some sort of "pregnancy" leading to a "rebirth" into adulthood. To this can be added that the planet Venus appears to be depicted in the mural at 'Ana O Keke, that some texts link the neru to the Polynesian sea god Tangaroa, and that Ure Vaeiko's Apai recitation tells of a struggle between Tangaroa and a Sun god over the former's "fair" daughter who is unable to survive in the sunlight and who is ultimately promoted to become the brilliant Morning and Evening Star (cf. De Laat 2014).

Using the proposed phonetic values, several terms from the neru texts can be identified in the rongorongo inscriptions. These include tama, "child", huru, "to seclude", hue, "to hide", 'ana, "cave", pu, "hole", tau, "beauty", mae, "fairness", ahu, puha, "fatness", puhi-puhi, "puffiness", heka-heka, "flabbiness", toa, "sugarcane", rua, "nausea", mamae, "suffering", and heva, "madness".

The extraordinary circumstances of the neru ritual – the physical and mental hardships produced by fatness, inertia, and isolation, together with the notions of a radical transformation through symbolic "death" and "rebirth" – explain how the previous attempt at translating the tablet inscriptions could result in one story about women who are reduced to a lethargic state while they are held captive in a cave and another in which people who have died in an accident in a cave are resurrected in bodies that they are only able to operate in a clumsy way.

In the following pages, it will be shown that the puberty rite of the "white virgins" must at one time have occupied a prominent place in Easter Island culture. The available ethnological material regarding the neru will be examined and confronted with the rongorongo inscriptions to verify the phonetic values for the glyphs of the Easter Island script that have been proposed earlier.


M. de Laat

September 2016