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The Other Mystery of Easter Island

Moai StatuesMoai Statues Easter Island is branded into popular

consciousness as the home of the mysterious and towering moai
statues, but these are not the only curiosity the South Pacific
island holds. Where the moai are fascinating for their unknown
purpose and mysterious craftsmen, the island's lost language of
Rongorongo is equally perplexing. The unique written language
seems to have appeared suddenly in the 1700s, but within just
two centuries it was exiled to obscurity.

Known as Rapa Nui to the island's inhabitants, Rongorongo is a

writing system comprised of pictographs. It has been found
carved into many oblong wooden tablets and other artifacts from
the island's history. The art of writing was not known in any
nearby islands and the script’s mere existence is sufficient to
confound anthropologists. The most plausible explanation so far
has been that the Easter Islanders were inspired by the writing
they observed in 1770 when the Spanish claimed the island.
However, despite its recency, no linguist or archaeologist has
been able to successfully decipher the Rongorongo language.

When early Europeans discovered Easter Island, its somewhat

isolated ecosystem was suffering from the effects of limited
natural resources, deforestation, and overpopulation. Over the
following years the island's population of four thousand or so was
slowly eroded by Western disease and deportation by slave
traders. By 1877, only about one hundred and ten inhabitants
remained. Rongorongo was one victim of these circumstances.
The colonizers of Easter Island had decided that the strange
language was too closely tied to the inhabitants' pagan past, and
forbade it as a form of communication. Missionaries forced the
inhabitants to destroy the tablets with Rongorongo inscriptions.

In 1864, Father Joseph Eyraud became the first non-islander to

record Rongorongo. Writing before the ultimate decline of the
Eastern Island society, he noted that "one finds in all the houses
wooden tables or staffs covered with sorts of hieroglyphs."
Despite his interest in the subject, he was not able to find an
Islander willing to translate the texts. The islanders were
understandably reluctant to help, given that the Europeans
forcefully suppressed the use of their native writing.
Rongorongo TabletsRongorongo TabletsSome time later, Bishop
Florentin Jaussen of Tahiti attempted to translate the texts. A
young Easter Islander named Metero claimed to be able to read
Rongorongo, and for fifteen days the bishop kept a record while
the boy dictated from the inscriptions. Bishop Jaussen gave up
the effort when he realized that Metero was a fraud; the boy had
assigned several meanings to the same symbol.

In 1886 Paymaster William Thompson of the ship USS Mohican

became interested in the pictographic system during a journey to
collect artifacts for the National Museum in Washington. He had
obtained two rare tablets engraved with the script and was
curious about their meaning. He asked eighty-three-year-old
islander Ure Va’e Iko for assistance in translation because his age
made him more likely to have knowledge of the language. The
man reluctantly admitted to knowing what the tablets said, but
did not wish to break the orders of the missionaries. As a result,
Ure Va’e Iko refused to touch the tablets, let alone decipher them.

Thompson was determined, however, and decided that Ure Va'e

Iko might be more forthcoming under the influence of alcohol.
After having a few drinks kindly provided by Thompson, the
Easter Islander looked at the tablets once again. The old man
burst into song, singing a fertility chant which described the
mating of gods and goddesses. William Thompson and his
companions quickly took down his words. This was potentially a
big breakthrough, but Thomson struggled with assigning words to
the pictographs. Furthermore, he couldn't find another Islander
who was willing to confirm the accuracy of this translation. While
Thompson was ultimately unable to read Rongorongo, the
translation that Iko provided has remained one of the most
valuable clues on how to decipher the tablets.

An Indus valley connection?An Indus valley connection?In the

following decades, many scholars have attempted to make sense
of this mystery. In 1932, Wilhelm de Hevesy tried to link
Rongorongo to the Indus script of the Indus Valley Civilization in
India, claiming that as many as forty Rongorongo symbols had a
correlating symbol in the script from India. Further examination
found this link to be much more superficial than originally
believed. In the 1950s, Thomas Barthel became one of the first
linguists of the modern era to make a study of Rongorongo. He
stated that system contained 120 basic elements that, when
combined, formed 1500 different signs. Furthermore, he asserted
that the symbols represented both objects and ideas. This made
it more difficult to produce a translation because an individual
symbol could potentially represent an entire phrase. Barthel was
successful, however, in identifying an artifact known as the Mamri
tablet as a lunar calendar.

Some of the most recent research has been conducted by a

linguist named Steven Fischer. Having studied nearly every
surviving example of Rongorongo, he took particular interest in a
four-foot-long scepter that had once been the property of an
Easter Island Chief. The artifact is covered in pictographs, and
Fischer noticed that every third symbol on this staff has an
additional "phallus-like" symbol attached to it. This led Fischer to
believe that all Rongorongo texts have a structure steeped in
counts of three, or triads. He has also studied Ure Va’e Iko's
fertility chant, which lent additional support to the concept. Iko
had always named a god first, his goddess mate second, and
their offspring third. Fischer has also tried to make the claim that
all Rongorongo texts relate creation myths. Looking at another
text, he has suggested that a sentence with a symbol of a bird, a
fish, and a sun reads "All the birds copulated with fish: there
issued forth the sun." While this could be the translation, it bears
little resemblance to Ure Va'e Iko's chant about the matings of
gods and goddesses.

Rongorongo naturally commands a great deal of interest from

linguists, anthropologists, and archaeologists. Only twenty-five
texts are know to have survived. Should anyone find a workable
translation for Rongorongo, the knowledge stored on the
remaining tablets might explain the mysterious statues of Easter
Island, the sudden appearance of the written language, and the
island's history and customs as whole. However, much like the
statues which have so captivated popular imagination,
Rongorongo has so far defied all attempts at explanation.