The Easter Island script


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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-b represent the phonetic value ta or , the allographs in fig. 2c-d, are syllabic signs for ma, , or ma'a. Glyphs 2a-b are also used to write the word ta, 'colour', 'to colour', while 2c is also used for ma'a, 'knowledge', 'to know'. The combination of the lower half of sign 2b with 2d reads tama, 'child' (fig. 2e). Both syllabic signs are fused in part with tou to form mātou and tātou, inclusive and exclusive 'we', respectively (fig. 2f-g). On its own, this disyllabic glyph stands for tohu, 'curse(d)'.  

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-ngeru, 'to be obese', 'to be shaking with fat'.

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". (1914-15, reel 1:0549). Several names for the initiates given to her include huru: take huru, vie huru (1914-15, reel 2:0823), poki také huru (1914-15, reel 2:0827). Englert (1974:163) has also recorded the expression poki huru hare.

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-tei, 'sugarcane that makes (them) grow' (fig. 2r).

Being secluded for a prolonged period of time in inhospitable locations like the narrow and damp cave of 'Ana O Keke (fig. 3-4), without sunlight or exercise, and being submitted to a strict diet intended to cause extreme fatness had severe repercussions on the physical and mental health of the young children. The inscriptions indicate, for example, that they lost the ability to walk: toa haka-teki, 'sugarcane that makes (them) lame' (fig. 2s); haka-teki ahu, 'the fatness makes (them) lame' (fig. 2t), and that they suffered: mamae mai mai ahu, '(They) are in pain since (they) have become swollen' (fig. 2u).

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-nui kai, 'The children will really like it if (they) stop to be swollen, if the food does not make (them) grow big' (fig. 2w). It seems therefore not improbable that concern for the children's physical and mental health was one of the reasons the main rongorongo texts advocate an abolition of the practices of seclusion, bleaching, and fattening. A fragment from line 1 of the Large Washington tablet (the bottom line in fig. 1) reads, for example, ma'a era roa pēaha pura roro niva to'o tehe pihi ahu taŋata ira / hoki tētahi 'ā huru 'ana rā / huru rō tohu ā i haka-teki to kōrua va'e ta'e ahu rō, '(We?) know that enlightening foolish minds will perhaps take a long time, but the menses should be tolerated and the fattening should be stopped by those people. Other people are repulsed by that seclusion. Should the "curse" be secluded when (it) makes (them) lame (while) your (own) legs are not swollen?' (fig. 2x).

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-religious context. With a more comprehensive understanding of this framework, it may prove possible to understand the subject matter of the rongorongo inscriptions and the function of the script in the ancient society.

Fig. 1  Detail of the Large Washington tablet (National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC)

Fig. 2  

  ta                 ta                    ma          ma             ta-ma     

child                1PL.INCL            1PL.EXCL

a                    b         

e                     f                   

tā-tou                 mā-tou              

ta-ma    tohu                hu-ru     ta-ma   ana tehe

child   cursed            seclude children IRR flow

tehe           tehe  tohu

flow            flow cursed  

i                          j                             

hu-ru  'ana  tohu  'ā    mā-tou

swell    child   ID PFV flow curse

a-hu     ta-ma 'ana  i   tehe tohu

i    tehe ki tohu  ta-ma 'ana  hu-ru   ta-ma 'ana

PFV flow to curse child   ID seclude child   ID

l                                        

seclude CONT curse ID 1PL.EXCL

n                            

p

a-hu    mo     ta-u        to-a

swell   for    beauty  sugarcane

to-a          haka-[te]-i

sugarcane    CAUS grow

tehe   ta-ma       ta-u    

flow    child    beautiful

ta-ma    a-hu    tea

child  swollen white

tea    ta-ma  'ana

white  child    ID

CAUS lame          swell

haka-te-ki            a-hu

mama-e    mai     mai       a-hu

suffer     hither   from      swell

to-a      haka-te-ki-te-(ki)

sugarcane CAUS lame:RED

ha-ŋa  rō    ta-ma  mo  pihi     mo

want EMPH child  for   end    for

a-hu     mo     ta-('e) haka-nui       kai

swell    for     NEG CAUS big      food

know   DIST       long

ma'a    e-ra        ro-a

pē - a-ha      pu-ra     ro-ro    ni-va

perhaps    brighten  mind  foolish

māma-te   tē-ta-hi        ho-ki        tē-ta-hi

PL:die      some        recover      others

to'o    tehe    pihi      a-hu          ta-ŋa-(ta)    i-ra

accept  flow     end     swell           man       ANA

ho-ki    [tē]-ta-[hi] 'ā     hu-ru  'ana rā        hu-ru    rō   tohu  'ā

PFV CAUS lame      POSS  2PL     leg   NEG  swell EMPH

i     haka-te-ki            to   kōru-a   va'e (ta)-'e (a)-hu  rō   

repulse    others   ID seclusion ID INT seclude EMPH curse ID

q

r

s

t

u

v

w

x

(x continued)

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

o

c                d

M. de Laat

g                           h

k

Petroglyph spelling

'white' in rongorongo

te             a

Fig. 5

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' " (1914-1915: Reel 1:0526).

Fig. 6