The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #5 September / October 2013
Island Chants
by Lucille Martin
September / October 2013 | 

Easter Island, located in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, has two ancient mysteries related to it. The more famous of these are the huge statues, called Moai, which were created by the early Rapa Nui people and are located all over the island.

The second mystery is related to a writing system which, to this day, remains undeciphered. Rongorongo is a system of glyphs that were carved into wood. Just over two dozen wooden objects of varying shape and size, containing these characters, have been collected and are kept in numerous museums and private collections. Even the natives of the island no longer retain the knowledge of what the writing means.

The original description of the script, according to the natives, was kohau motu mo rongorongo, meaning "lines incised for chanting out". This got shortened to kohau rongorongo ("lines [for] chanting out"). Now it is just normally referred to as Rongorongo.


Polynesian people settled on Easter Island some time between from 300 to 1200 CE. The oral traditions of the Rapa Nui people claim that either Hotu Matu'a or Tu'u ko Iho, the two legendary founders of Rapa Nui, brought with them 67 tablets from their homeland of Marae Renga. This same founder is also said to have brought many indigenous plants like the toromiro tree, sweet potato, sugarcane, and paper mulberry.

Despite them creating a strong culture and thriving for a long time, their isolation proved to be a major problem. As they became overpopulated, they used up most of the islands limited natural resources, including the already scarce trees. When European explorers arrived on the island in 1722, the population had gone from a thriving civilization of 15000 to one of just 3000. The Europeans caused the population to decline even further by exposing the natives to diseases they brought.

Peruvians started raiding the island for free labor in the forms of slaves in the 1860s. Over the the years, hundreds of natives were taken, with few of them surviving long in Peru. When the Bishop of Tahiti put a stop to it, he had the surviving Rapa Nui natives sent back, but an epidemic of smallpox killed most of them on the ship. The survivors carried the sickness with them, and the remaining island population was nearly wiped out. The language Rapa Nui also suffered, as it became mixed with the widely spoken Tahitian. (For more information on the Rapa Nui language, see "Languages in Peril" in this issue).

One of the authentic tablets containing Rongorongo writing

"Easter Island" got it's name from the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who was the the island's first recorded European visitor. He found it on Easter Sunday, and so named it Paasch-Eyland, Dutch for "Easter Island". The official name of the island is Isla de Pascua, which also means "Easter Island". The Polynesian name for it, Rapa Nui, means "Big Rapa", which it got during the slave raids, because of its topographic similarity to the island of Rapa in the Bass Islands of the Austral Islands group. Spanish explorer Felipe González de Ahedo later traveled to the island in 1770 and claimed it for Spain. In 1888, Easter Island was annexed by Chile by Policarpo Toro, a Chilean naval officer, under the Tratado de Anexión de la isla ("Treaty of Annexation of the Island").

The Christian religion came to the island when Eugène Eyraud, a lay friar of the Congrégation de Picpus, landed on Easter Island on January 2, 1864, and began evangelizing the natives. He kept a record of his stay in which he also told of his discovery of the tablets when he first arrived. However, he did not mention the tablets again, so they remained unnoticed. He left nine months later, then returned as a full priest in 1865. He died a few years later of tuberculosis.


Florentin-Étienne Jaussen, the Bishop of Tahiti, received a strange gift from the newly converted Catholics of Easter Island in 1868. It was a small wooden board with a long cord of human hair wound around it. On the board was a strange hieroglyphic writing. Wanting to learn more, Jaussen wrote to Father Hippolyte Roussel on Easter Island, instructing him to collect all the tablets and find some natives who were capable of translating them. Roussel could only recover a few of the tablets, and the natives could not agree on how to read them.

Copy made by Barthel of one of the tablets

From Eyraud's records, they knew he had seen hundreds of tablets on his arrival only a few years earlier, so they wondered what had happened to all of them. Eyraud had also written that the natives had little interest in them. The Bishop questioned the island wise men, Ouroupano Hinapote and Tekaki, and they explained that while they knew how to carve the characters with a small shark's tooth, according to their teachings, there was nobody left on the island who knew how to read the characters. The Peruvians raids had caused the deaths of all the wise men who still knew how, and so the engraved pieces of wood were no longer of any interest to the natives. They simply burned them as firewood or wound their fishing lines around them. Some tablets were used to start fires by rubbing sticks against them. Some were even used in the construction of canoes.

There were more attempts to recover tablets. Three more were obtained by Captain Gana from Chile in 1870, and German ethnologist Thomas Barthel found the decayed remains of half a dozen more tablets in caves in the 1950s.


From the various interviews of natives, the possible source and reason for the tablets was uncovered. Along with carved tablets, the founders brought around six hundred texts, written on a paper made of banana leaves. These texts were an archive of the history of the people, but as the leaves started to deteriorate, the archive was threatened. King Hotu Matua ordered the contents to be copied onto tablets made of toromiro wood.

These texts were an archive of the history of the people, but as the leaves started to deteriorate, the archive was threatened.

There was a particular group that was given this task. They were the tangata rongorongo, and were selected high officials from each clan. They lived in their own special dwellings and their sole job was to teach how to read and write the glyphs to others. They would conduct lessons under a banana tree, with their students seated around them in a circle. Through singing and reciting the stories of the text, the students learned what each character meant in it's entirety. Each text had a particular melody, so reading the text was very difficult if it's particular tune wasn't known.

As they learned to read the texts, the students would also learn to carve the characters into the branches of banana leaves, using a small shark's tooth. When they had become proficient in that, they would be allowed to carve into toromiro wood. Toromiro wood was slow growing and in limited supply, however, so other kinds of wood were also used, including driftwood that would wash up on the island shore. Once a tablet had been carved, it was placed into a envelope made of reed leaves, then hung. After that, only teachers or their servants were allowed to touch them.


Even though the natives no longer knew how to translate the texts, they did know how the various tablets were made. The process of cutting grooves into wood is called fluting and the grooves that are cut are called flutes. Scribes used obsidian flakes (pieces of a particular hard rock) or small shark teeth to flute the wood. Most of the glyphs are composed of two parts which are then connected by a fine cut. It is believed that the characters were created by first sketching the design using the obsidian, then a shark tooth would deepen the cuts. That would mean the remaining fine cuts may have been mistakes or some part of the design. Some of the carved tablets seem to have been carved with a steel blade, which makes the authenticity of those tablets questionable, perhaps done by someone trying to mimic or falsify the tablets.

The glyphs are generally categorized as being forms of humans, animals, vegetables or geometric shapes. Those glyphs with "heads" are usually oriented up or facing right. A few are inverted (head down or facing left), but the reason for that is unknown. Some of the heads have markings on the side that might represent eyes or ears. A common glyph is a bird, with many resembling frigatebirds, which happens to be normally associated with Makemake (the creator of humanity, god of fertility and main god of the Tangata manu (birdman cult)).

The direction of the text is also of interest. Normally, text is written in the same direction, vertically or horizontally. The texts of the Rongorongo script is written in alternating directions, starting from the lower left corner. A line is read from left to right, but upon reaching the end, the tablet is then turned upside down, and the next line is then read. The lines above and below the one being read would be upside down. This system is called reverse boustrophedon. The script contains no punctuation or paragraphs.

Closeup of the Rongorongo staff


Perhaps the person most involved in cataloguing and understanding the Rongorongo tablets in the last century was Thomas Barthel. He visited most of the museums which had tablets and made pencil rubbings of them. From this data, he compiled the first collection of the script, and he published this as Grundlagen zur Entzifferung der Osterinselschrift (Basics of Deciphering the Easter Island Writing) in 1958. He was also the first scholar to correctly identify anything in the texts.

Barthel gave each script a single capital letter and a name, like "Tablet G: the Little Tablet of Santiago". There is no real standard in the names, with some being descriptive while others refer to where they are. Other names include "Crescent Tablet", "Snuffbox", "Oar", "Crescent [piece of] Wood", "Santiago Staff", "Worm-eaten Tablet" and "Great Tablet". There are 26 such tablets that are believed to be authentic, and not created later by others.

He also distinguished the two faces of a tablet with a suffix of r (recto - "front") or v (verso - "back"). This differs in a few cases for objects that don't have exactly 2 sides, such as the Santiago Staff, which is a single round item, and the Snuff Box, which has six sides.

Each of the texts has between 2 and 2320 glyphs, with some of them compounded, for a total over 15 thousand. Barthel assigned a numerical three-digit code to each glyph or group of similar glyphs which he believed to be allographs (variants of other glyphs). This produced 600 numeric codes. These codes were not simply assigned as the numbers one through six hundred. Each of the three digits represented a certain aspect. For example, the hundreds place (leftmost digit) is a numeral from 0 to 7, and refers to the head or, if there is no head, the overall form of the glyph: 0 and 1 for shapes and inanimate objects, 2 for characters with ears, 3 and 4 for those with open mouths with legs or tails, 5 for other heads that don't fit the previous groups, 6 for ones with beaks, 7 for non-humans, like fish. The other two digits have similar roles, referring to various common patterns, like the positions of arms or wings. While the assignment of the numbers to different aspects might not be perfect, it remains the only effective system yet proposed to catalogue the glyphs.

One of the tablets with Rongorongo on the left and a drawn copy by Barthel on the right


A few people have made attempts at translating the script, but nothing conclusive has been proven.

In Tahiti, Jaussen had found a laborer from Easter Island, Metoro, who claimed to be able to read the tablets. Metoro would take a tablet, rotate it to find it's beginning, then start chanting what is written. Jaussen made charts of the characters, grouping them by similarity and what he thought they might mean. He based his meanings on what Metoro told him each glyph meant. Metoro also gave him a complete translation of one of the tablets. From this, he was able to produce a translation for others, but the results were so senseless that he even wrote in an introduction to it that "One must resign, there is no sense in it".

There are a few barriers to providing an accurate translation, even if Rongorongo is a true writing system.

Later study of the translations would provide a reason as to why Jaussen's translation made no sense. Jaussen had collected the items and the information, but had never truly analyzed what he had. While Metoro had given him a translation of a tablet, Jaussen had not compared that with the meanings of the symbols. They did not match.

William J. Thomson was the paymaster on the USS Mohican. He spent twelve days on Easter Island in December,1886, and during that time he found a man named Ure Va'e Iko who claimed to understand the texts. He had been the steward of King Nga'ara, the last king who was said to have had knowledge of writing. While Va'e Iko could not himself write, he knew many of the chants. Thomson gave him money and gifts to get him to read photographs of Jaussen's tablets.

At first, Thomson believed Va'e Iko, but then he began to notice that he would recite the same translation for completely different photographs. Va'e Iko would also often turn the photograph before reading out the same number of glyphs as on the line. It is unclear as to why Va'e Iko was misleading Thomson, but part of the reason may have been that the scripts were considered sacred and thus not to be shared with outsiders. It was apparent, though, that this was not going to produce a true translation.

A banana tree, like those that the tangata rongorongo would sit under as they taught others how to create the Rongorongo texts

Katherine Routledge, a British archaeologist and anthropologist, conducted a scientific expedition to Rapa Nui with her husband in 1914. The intent was to catalogue the art, customs, and writings of the island. When they arrived, she interviewed two elderly natives, Kapiera and Tomenika, who were said to have some knowledge of the tablets. However, their explanations often contradicted each other.

Kapiera told Routledge that each character had both a literal meaning, like the object it represented, and a sort of "reminding" meaning, referring to something in the mind of the reader. Those meanings would probably have then been passed down orally. That would be similar to someone tying a knot in a string to remind them of something; the knot represents what they should remember, but any other person would see it simply as a knot. Routledge concluded that Rongorongo did not directly represent language, but rather was an idiosyncratic mnemonic device or proto-writing (systems that have many characteristics similar to writing). She figured that the meanings of the characters were redefined by each scribe of a text, so that the text could only then be read by someone with specific knowledge of that text.

There are a few barriers to providing an accurate translation, even if Rongorongo is a true writing system. There are so few remaining texts that making any valid pattern matching impossible. There are no illustrations or other means to guess the context of the text. If Rongorongo was related to the old Rapa Nui language, that has since become so mixed with Tahitian that it would likely not match the written text anymore.

Some of the Rongorongo texts were carved into wood that would wash up on the beach

Many other translation attempts have been made, most being largely unlikely. Australian pediatrician Alan Carroll published a translation in 1892 that was based on an idea of the texts being written by an extinct "Long-Ear" population of Easter Island and represent some mixture of Quechua and other languages of Peru and Mesoamerica. However, he did not publish any methods of analysis or meaning for the glyphs to prove the translation.

Hungarian Vilmos Hevesy published an article in 1932, claiming that Rongorongo and the Indus Valley script were related because they had some similarities. However, since both scripts are undeciphered, were found on different sides of the world (the Indus Valley being in the region of Afghanistan), and have their origins an estimated 4000 years apart, this connection is very unlikely.

Rongorongo tablet shaped like fish

Independent linguist Steven Fischer announced in 1995 that he had "cracked the Rongorongo code". He noted that the text of the Santiago Staff was different from the others, in that it had "punctuation" in the form of vertical lines in many place. He also interpreted a particular glyph as a phallic symbol, which he translated as "copulated". This results in his translation containing several references to animals and objects copulating with each other, such as "fish copulated with the sun", which many scholars have disregarded as just silly. Fischer also claims to have deciphered the Phaistos Disc, but that too is disregarded as valid because, in both cases, too many assumptions are made that only relate to a small volume of the known text.


From what was learned from the natives of Easter Island as well as linguistic analysis, the Rongorongo script is most likely not a true writing system or language. If so, then the meaning and purpose of the texts and the objects they were written on will never be discovered. We can be sure, however, that people will continue to have their own ideas on what they mean.

Rongorongo - Island Chants
Writer: Lucille Martin
Rivi: Outer slope of the Rano Raraku volcano (title)
christopherhu: closetup Rongorongo tablet
Robert Nyman: Easter Island beach
David Berkowitz: Anakena beach and moai
Carlos Reusser Monsalvez: Rongorongo tablet shaped like fish
Petey: Barthel's tracing of rongorongo tablet G; Mid section of the Santiago Staff; Side of rongorongo Tablet F; Barthel's tracing of rongorongo Tablet F; Barthel's tracing of rongorongo text I
• "Thomas Barthel" Wikipedia <>
• "Easter Island and Its Mysteries" CHAUVET <>
• "Rongorongo" Wikipedia <>
• "Rongorongo script" Omniglot <>
• "Rongorongo" novatravels 350 <>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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In this issue:
Main Contents
Letter From The Editor Letter From The Editor - Why Polynesian?
Rongorongo Rongorongo - Island Chants
Otto Dempwolff Otto Dempwolff - Islands of Language
At the Cinema At the Cinema - Whale Rider
Celebrations Celebrations - Pasifika Festival
Special Feature Special Feature - Avoiuli
Languages in Peril Languages in Peril - The Island Invasion
Revisited Revisited - Legends of Maui - Maui's Home
Word on the Streets Word on the Streets - Malay Masters
Where Are You? Where Are You?
Revisited Revisited - Legends of Maui - Maui Snaring the Sun

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