The rongorongo script of Easter Island constitutes true writing since it displays all the structural characteristics of such a system and it can be deciphered because the Rapanui language it represents is known. In Words out of wood: Proposals for the decipherment of the Easter Island script (2009), I have tried to demonstrate this by assigning phonetic values to the most common signs and applying them to three of the surviving texts – tablets A, B and E. Their translations suggest that these texts consist entirely of dialogues, which possibly were meant to be read aloud by different persons – perhaps even to be enacted in some way or other. Further studies of the rongorongo corpus and certain points in the criticism of my book have encouraged me to improve upon these interpretations.

On this web site, I plan to present the findings of the book in a more elaborate way, to substantially review the translations of texts A, B and E and to provide detailed studies of the other main texts (C, G/K, H/P/Q, I, R and S). To these will be added essays on several brief inscriptions that can be found on a wide range of such diverse objects as rocks, sculptures, and ... people.

In his famous story about imaginary worlds Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940), Jorge Luis Borges wrote "Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men". To me, the same holds very much true for the unknown world we call "pre-contact Easter Island culture". I am convinced that the precious little that is left of its inscribed artifacts will eventually enable a successful exploration of one of its darkest continents – the writing system of rongorongo. And while it may often give us the impression of a labyrinth, we must not forget it was never designed as one.

M. de Laat

November 2010


During the past years it has become more and more clear to me that there existed an intimate connection between the writing of rongorongo and the initiation cult of the so-called neru – children who were isolated from society in caves or special houses to be fattened by a special diet and to be bleached by a lack of sunlight. The most important of the surviving inscriptions appear to represent a specific genre of chant which involves these children – especially the girls – and which is perhaps best typified as "lament". A substantial number of song texts of this type has been recorded by various researchers during the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Unfortunately, most of these have been misinterpreted, apparently because detailed knowledge of the neru rites had largely disappeared and texts had subsequently been reworked or partly incorporated into others. Nevertheless, Easter Island informants have given an important clue to the connection of rongorongo and neru cult by insisting that one traditional text, He timo te akoako, was once part of the rongorongo corpus. This text has since been identified as connected to the neru (Fischer 1994). Secondly, there is the fact that several unmistakable rongorongo glyphs appear among the petroglyphs at 'Ana O Keke – a remote coastal cave on Poike which tradition has identified as a place of seclusion for neru girls.

If most of the surviving inscriptions belong to the same genre and share the same subject matter, it would explain the existence of so many parallel segments without the need of assuming that the inscriptions are collections of short unrelated texts of different genres. Furthermore, names and classifications such as ranga and ika which have been associated with certain tablets and which have been thought to refer to captives and victims of war, would certainly have also 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", possibly at a specific stage in their process of ritual transformation.

If most of the extant rongorongo texts can be linked to the neru, their cult must have occupied a very significant place among pre-missionary Easter Island belief systems. Some indications to his effect can be found in traditions which link the neru to the great Polynesian sea god Tangaroa and in the presence of the planet Venus in the mural at 'Ana O Keke. The latter would in turn explain the presence of certain astronomical or calendrical content in the inscriptions, as in many cultures the periodicity of certain celestial bodies has been connected to the menstrual cycle and to the gestation period.

In the following, the ethnological material regarding the puberty rite of the "white virgins" will be presented and confronted with the rongorongo inscriptions in an attempt to verify the phonetic values proposed earlier.  

June 2016