The Easter Island script
The Easter Island script which is known under the – probably not historical – name of rongorongo has only survived in a very limited corpus of inscriptions. The most important of these can be found on a wooden staff and some twenty tablets, also made of wood and for the most part severely damaged. Much shorter texts have been inscribed or painted on a wide variety of objects such as breast ornaments, small wooden sculptures, tapa dolls, human skulls, and rocks.
As a result of the catastrophic impact of slave raids and imported diseases, expert knowledge of the writing system had completely disappeared by the time of the script's discovery to the rest of the world in the second half of the 19th century. Ever since, and despite numerous attempts at decipherment, its enigmatic figures have refused to give up their secrets. It is the intention of this website to show that they constitute nothing less than a fully developed script. And as such, these rongorongo glyphs stand alongside the great moai statues as a lasting monument of the inventiveness and artistry of the people of that remote Pacific island.
It is proposed here that the rongorongo inscriptions are, for the most part, composed from about 45 syllabic signs and a smaller set of disyllabic signs. On their own, most of these represent words, but as phonetic components they can also be fused to constitute multisyllabic words and short phrases. For example, the allographs in fig. 2a-
The main obstacle to the decipherment of the Easter Island script is the fact that there is little reliable information on the subject matter of the inscriptions. Several native sources have, however, suggested a connection to premissionary initiation rites of young children, called poki manu, poki také, or neru. The neru customs in particular seem to have incorporated two widespread Polynesian cultural traits: the taboos surrounding female menstruation (the menarche in particular), often resulting in temporary isolation from society, and the perceived beauty standards that required bleaching of the skin through avoidance of sunlight and fattening of the body through special diets and inactivity. As it appears, the neru children were secluded in special houses or remote caves for a considerable period of time in order to become white and obese. Their name is clearly cognate with Hawaiian nelu, 'fat', 'fleshy', 'plump', and Māori ngeru-
Assuming that the traditions which suggest a link between initiation rites and rongorongo are correct, it is proposed here that the former provide a set of terms which can be traced in the texts and serve as a possible entry into the closed system. Using a slightly modified and extended version of the syllabary that was proposed earlier (De Laat 2009), these are the main concepts that have been identified as being related to the rites:
1) tehe, 'flow', 'menses' (fig. 2h). Sometimes tohu is appended to this, giving tehe tohu, 'cursed flow' (fig. 2i), which clearly points to the taboos surrounding the menarche, as does tama tohu, 'cursed children' (fig. 2j).
2) huru, 'to seclude', a term possibly related to uru, 'to enter': huru tama ana tehe, 'The children are secluded if (they) menstruate' (fig. 2k), huru ana tohu 'ā mātou, 'We seclude the curse' or 'We seclude (them) if (they) are cursed' (fig. 2l). The term was explained to Routledge as "staying in house and getting your face white". (1914-
3) tau, 'beauty', 'beautiful': tehe tama tau, 'The beautiful children flow' (fig. 2m). The two qualities connected to this ideal of "beauty" – paleness and obesity – are both present in the texts:
4) tea, 'white', 'pale', 'to become white': tea tama 'ana, 'Those children are/will be white' (fig. 2n).
5) ahu, 'to swell', i.e., 'to fatten', 'to grow fat'. The "turtle" glyph is one of the most frequently appearing composite signs and represents the term that is mostly used for the process and result of fattening: tama ahu tea, 'the swollen white children' (fig. 2o); ahu tama 'ana i tehe tohu / i tehe ki tohu tama 'ana huru tama 'ana, 'Those children will be swollen when the "curse" flows. Because (it) flows to curse those children, those children are secluded' (fig. 2p).
6) toa, 'sugarcane': according to some sources, the neru's food consisted mainly of sugarcane. The inscriptions confirm this: ahu mo ta'u toa, 'The sugarcane swells (them) to become beautiful' (fig. 2q); toa haka-
Being secluded for a prolonged period of time in inhospitable locations like the narrow and damp cave of 'Ana O Keke (fig. 3-
Although the scarce reports on the neru emphasize their "beauty" and make little or no mention of fattening and its consequences, one informant, Arturo Teao, explicitly stated that their health was seriously impaired: "When the neru reappeared among the people, they tended to become ill; some died, others recovered" (Englert 1939:208). The last part of this can be found word for word on tablet Aruku Kurenga (text B): māmate tētahi hoki tētahi, 'Some die, others recover' (fig. 2v).
The texts also make it very clear that the children themselves were not very happy in their dire circumstances: haŋa rō tama mo pihi mo ahu mo ta'e haka-
To which groups in society these sentences refer has not been determined but it is clear that the initiation customs had their proponents and opponents. As most of the surviving corpus of rongorongo inscriptions appears to be devoted to descriptions of their negative aspects and to pleas for their termination, this raises the question why so much of the scarce wood resourses was dedicated to a seemingly minor part of the cultural belief system.
One part of the solution could be that the script was intimately – and perhaps to a certain extent even exclusively – connected to certain initiation rites. This would, for example, explain the conspicious absence of rongorongo signs in Easter Island rock art as well as their presence in the large petroglyph mural in 'Ana O Keke. The most conspicuous figure, perhaps a depiction of a neru with long fingernails, is composed of glyphs which spell tetea or teate(a), 'white' (fig. 5).
Other pieces of the puzzle could possibly be provided by the many traditional chants which tell the tales of the initiates. Unfortunately, these texts have been poorly preserved and have often been mistaken for modern and/or imported songs. One of these, a "prelude" to one of the most important neru texts, known as He timo te akoako, was recorded by Routledge but has remained unpublished (fig. 6). It can be reconstructed as: te ‘atua nui te ‘atua matu‘a / he noho ‘ana ‘i tu‘a te marumaru ‘i tu‘a te ‘ata‘ata o te raro te ‘atua matu‘a / ko te toto paripari o te raro na‘a ‘ana Taŋaroa te roŋoroŋo ‘a te ‘atua matu‘a, 'The parental god is the supreme god. The parental god resides back in the darkness, back in the shadows of the deep. The blood flows from below (where) Tangaroa and the disciples of the parental god are hiding'. The fact that this text explicitly connects the primeval Polynesian god Tangaroa to the neru indicates that they played an important part in a much wider mytho-
Fig. 1 Detail of the Large Washington tablet (National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC)
ta ta ma ma ta-
child 1PL.INCL 1PL.EXCL
child cursed seclude children IRR flow
tehe tehe tohu
flow flow cursed
swell child ID PFV flow curse
i tehe ki tohu ta-
PFV flow to curse child ID seclude child ID
seclude CONT curse ID 1PL.EXCL
swell for beauty sugarcane
sugarcane CAUS grow
flow child beautiful
child swollen white
white child ID
CAUS lame swell
suffer hither from swell
sugarcane CAUS lame:RED
want EMPH child for end for
swell for NEG CAUS big food
know DIST long
perhaps brighten mind foolish
PL:die some recover others
to'o tehe pihi a-
accept flow end swell man ANA
PFV CAUS lame POSS 2PL leg NEG swell EMPH
repulse others ID seclusion ID INT seclude EMPH curse ID
Fig. 3 'Ana O Keke, the cave of the neru, is located high on the northern cliffs of Poike
Fig. 4 'Ana O Keke's first chamber (petroglyhs to the left)
M. de Laat
'white' in rongorongo
Routledge's notation of a kohau rongorongo text 'O te atua matua' as recited by her informant Kapiera, ending with the remark "This forms prelude and is recited and then begins the chant 'He ako ako timo' " (1914-