Easter Island, known for its Polynesian name like Rapa Nui, is famous for its huge stone statues called moais. However, there is another equally intriguing enigma that surrounds this isolated island: an ancient writing system that has not been deciphered until now.
This ancient form of communication called Rongorongo, it is made up of glyphs carved on wood and has baffled scholars for decades. This remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of archeology and linguistics.
Easter Island, now a special territory of Chile, is the most isolated inhabited island on the planet, located more than 2,000 km (1,298 miles) from its nearest populated neighbor.
According to the oral tradition of the region, the Ariki Hotu Matu’a He was the first king to arrive on Easter Island, with him he took 67 tablets which corresponded to Maori wisdom, which explained, among other things, astronomy and navigation; However, nowhere else in Polynesia has this type of writing been documented or found.
Another theory on the origin of the Rongorongo tablets indicates that they were brought by the first settlers, probably from Marquesas Islands or Gambier, which are today part of the French Polynesia.
By contrast, some believe it was long before European contact, which began when the Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen arrived on the island on Easter Sunday 1722; while others argue that it arose in the 1770s, after the Rapanui people first discovered European writing during a Spanish expedition to the island. But until now, researchers have not agreed on the exact date of the appearance of the writing system.
The first tablet with the Rongorongo script was found by the lay brother of the Roman Catholic Church, Eugene Eyraudarrived on Easter Island as a missionary in 1864.
The challenges of interpreting this ancient writing
The ancient writing itself consists of approximately 120 symbols taken from nature, where you can see from fish to plants and vegetables. It has more than 450 variations and these can be extended to thousands of compound symbols.
These symbols were engraved with sharp objects, such as shark teeth and obsidian points, on wooden tablets. The tablets vary in size and length and feature inscriptions in the form of lines and symbols engraved with stone tools.
So far, researchers have managed to distinguish certain characters like sea turtles, centipedes, trees, men and possibly deities.
Over the years there have been several attempts to decipher the script, but it has proven to be a difficult task due to a severe lack of data. Only 26 rongorongo tablets survived, the one found in the Rapa Nui Museum it is a replica and all the originals are found abroad, mainly in Europe, the United States and the Chilean mainland. Some have only a few lines of text.
The largest wooden tablet with inscriptions rongorongo It is on display at the Dahlen Ethnological Museum in Berlin, Germany. The loss of most of the original tablets early in Easter Island’s history further limited the ability to decipher the writing system.
One of the most striking characteristics of the Rongorongo is its bidirectional layout: the inscriptions are read in a straight line from left to right, then in the other direction, and so on. This peculiarity made its interpretation even more difficult, since it does not follow the conventions of linear writing to which we are accustomed.
Not like the others most popular writing systemsLike the Egyptian or the Maya, the Rongorongo does not have a Rosetta stone which could provide a key for its translation.
The fact that there are few tablets and that some are incomplete makes it difficult to identify consistent patterns. Added to this is the limited knowledge of the Rapanui language at the time the tablets were carved, making it even more difficult to assign specific values to the symbols.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Only a few knew
It seems that Rongorongo was mainly used for religious purposes and was only understood by local elites.
“Only a handful of educated and literate people, according to tradition only men, could interpret the texts,” he explains. Cristian Moreno Pacarati, head of research for the Rapanui Pioneer Society. It is for this reason that the knowledge of writing began to disappear in the 19th century.
Theories of possible meanings
Over the years, various theories on the meaning and purpose of the Rongorongo. Some scholars suggest it could be a record of genealogies, tales, or even a form of information coding. Other theories suggest it may have had a ceremonial or religious purpose.
One of the most intriguing theories is that the Rongorongo may have been influenced by contact with South American cultures, such as the Inca civilization. This theory rests on some superficial similarities between the rongorongo symbols and Inca artistic representations.
Tablet with rongorongo writing, apparently carved with a shark’s tooth.
As technological and linguistic techniques advance, it is hoped that one day the Rongorongo will finally reveal its secrets. As is the case with the recent use of artificial intelligence to decipher the Mesopotamian tablets. Perhaps interdisciplinary collaboration between archaeologists, linguists, anthropologists and scientists could be the key to solving this enigma that has baffled humanity for so long.
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