Rongorongo: The Mysterious Writing System of Easter Island

Statues-at-Tongariki

A friend of mine has vacation time approaching and as a pilot, he can travel anywhere. He was pondering places to visit and asked me, “If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?” Without hesitation I answered, “Easter Island.”

Easter Island is one of the most isolated inhabited places on Earth. An early indigenous name for the island was Te Pito o te Henua, meaning “The Navel of the World” and this is exactly how it looks on maps – like a belly button in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Easter Island is so remote its closest inhabited neighbors are Pitcairn Island, at 2,075 km to the west, while Chile is 3,700 km east (the island is Chilean territory).

Easter Island was so renamed after Dutch explore Jacob Roggeveen “discovered” the land on Easter Sunday in 1722. Rapa Nui (“Big Island”) is the indigenous name for the island, its inhabitants, and its language.

Rapa Nui is most famous for its iconic Moai. These are large stone statues that were carved between 1100-1680. There are some 900 Moai scattered across the island; some staring out to sea like guardians of the island, but most face inland, appearing to oversee its inhabitants.

At some point in Rapa Nui’s history, its population diminished rapidly. Until recently, the popular theory to explain this was that the primitive, superstitious natives destroyed their natural resources in order to build the Moai. The prevailing theory is not of ecocide, but of genocide. It appears that contact with colonizers caused the near-annihilation of this ethnic group. In the 19th century, thousands of Rapa Nui were kidnapped by Peruvians and forced into slavery in mines and plantations. Some Rapa Nui were eventually returned to their homeland, but disease and hard labor killed many of them. Those who returned brought back an epidemic of smallpox that decimated the already diminished population. Others emigrated to South America or other Polynesian islands. Today, there are only about 3,000 Rapa Nui left, and it’s been a struggle to piece together their history and preserve their culture.

The indigenous people write the Rapa Nui or Spanish languages using the Latin alphabet, but Rapa Nui once had its own writing system: Rongorongo. In the Rapa Nui language, Rongorongo means to “recite” or “chant”. This writing dates back to the 17th century and its origin is unknown. It may have originated in South America or Polynesia. Alternatively, the script may have been invented on the island. If so, Rongorongo would be one of the world’s few writing systems that evolved independently.

There is only a very small existing corpus of 25 Rongorongo inscriptions on stone and wood. (Polynesian words can have multiple meanings, and another possible translation of Rongorongo is “talking wood”). An alleged 26th example may be a clever fake. According to lore, Rongorongo was traditionally carved onto banana leaves using obsidian flakes or shark’s teeth. Many of the extant samples are badly weathered, burned, or damaged, and all are kept in personal collections or museums in Paris, Rome, New York, and Hawaii. None remain on the island anymore.

rongorongoThere are about 120 symbols in Rongorongo. These include pictures of humans, animals, plants, astronomical symbols, and geometric shapes. There are also hundreds of glyphs that are formed from these symbols. It is not known if the writing is logographic (one symbol per concept), a syllabary (one symbol per syllable), or an alphabet (one symbol per sound, like our own writing). It’s not even known if this actually is writing. Some scholars believe that Rongorongo is a type of protowriting, that is, picture symbols that don’t have any linguistic content. Others think Rongorongo is a mnemonic device that depicts events in a story or an historical account. Many of the glyphs are similar to the thousands of petroglyphs (pictures carved into rock) that are found on the island.

Rongorongo was written in a very curious style known as reverse boustrophedon. Like a linguistic labyrinth, Rongorongo was read from left to write on the bottom line, then the tablet was turned 180 degrees to read the next line. So, when reading one line the lines above it and below appear to be upside down.rongorongo2

Rongorongo was used until the 186os. Around that time, knowledge of how to read it was lost. Perhaps those who were literate in Rongorongo were sold into slavery, died of smallpox, or moved overseas. Another theory is that the writing was considered sacred and only elders and religious leaders could write and read it. There are also stories that when interested visitors tried to translate the script, they learned that Christian missionaries had forbidden the native’s from using their writing.

Sadly, no one can understand the writing system today. Its decipherment will take the combined efforts of speakers, linguists, archaeologists, and art historians. But for now, Rongorongo remains a mystery.

Posted in: Uncategorized
Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist with a background in history and anthropology, and is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic and Haunting America. Her forthcoming books include Missed Conceptions and Not What The Doctor Ordered.

15 Comments on "Rongorongo: The Mysterious Writing System of Easter Island"

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  1. Bruce Albright says:

    Wow! I had no idea that this writing system existed! If it is a pristine writing system, then it would be one of a small handful known. I suspect, however, that the islanders were influenced by the outside. If this writing system didn’t exist on the island until the 17th Century, then the possibility of it being brought to or influenced outsiders is pretty high. The 17th Century is when Whalers from Europe started venturing into the Pacific.

  2. There are only about four writing systems that emerged independently of other scripts. This would make Rongorongo very rare indeed!

    One theory is that the Rapa Nui were influenced by Spanish visitors to the island, although there’s a story about the Spanish annexing the island in 1770, and when the natives signed the treaty they used Rongorongo. It’s possible that the script is indigenous, especially since it reflects very old petroglphs found across the island.

  3. Lily says:

    I never knew of a boustrophedon where the alternating line was written upside down!!!!

    I’ve seen it mirrored, but upside down? That’s wild! 😀

  4. I think the reverse form is pretty rare. Rongorongo seems to be the best example of this style!

    • There are reverse letters in petroglyphs on Hawaii Island. It was theorized by archaeologist, Charles Hibbs, JR., that this occurred only when writing was first introduced to islanders.

  5. Blake Smith says:

    If loving this is wrong-o wrongo-o, I don’t want to be write.

  6. Blake, I can’t take any Moai of these puns…

  7. Mimi Forsyth says:

    Stephen Fischer in New Zealand has done remarkable work translating it. And it has nothing to do with the Spanish.

  8. Bob Guffanti says:

    I like to think that they’re notes for the choreography of an interpretive dance.

  9. Yes, Fischer, Jacques Guy, Jacques Vignes, Martha Macri and others have made valuable contributions towards understanding Rongorongo. However, it remains undeciphered.

    The implication isn’t that Rongorongo was inspired by the Spanish language or Latin alphabet, but one theory is that the Rapa Nui’s exposure to a writing system inspired them to create their own.

  10. Bob Patterson says:

    Interesting article on one of my favorite places. The ecological destruction of Easter Island was also well written about in Jo Anne Van Tilburg’s book “Easter Island” (1994). Rapa Nui, as it is today lies in contrast to a disturbing past. Early European explorers and priests decimated a unique culture as well as its icons/writing (Rongorongo) tablets. It is well documented that Chile used many of the islanders as slave workers. I did find some cool pictures of Easter Island on imagetaxi (.com)

  11. Audrey Garcia says:

    What if the writing has to do with what was going on during the time that the people who wrote it, could it tell us what happened and the reason it was written? Maybe if you take time to closely look at the writing, you will start to see what it really means. I took some time to look at it and im not sure if its right or not, but it looks like that the way they were written is showing words to me. Could this mean something or no, im not really sure but it does show a little meaning if it is looked at very carefully. I think it has something to do,the words kinda show themselves to me and they have something to do with im guessing farm live or something was going on in the jungle. Is there even a jungle near there where the scripts were written? I took awhile to look over the writing and it has something to do with, was there a war going on when the scripts were written? What they are showing me is that i guess there was a war going on between two groups and the scripts are just something to show the people in the future what happened. What they didnt know is that the people in the future will not understand the meaning of the wriiten script at the time. I may not be an expert but i think it is something to do with ether farm life,a jungle, or a war that took present at the time. I might not be right.

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