rongorongo puzzles
I accept the native Rapanui tradition that rongorongo writing was known on
the island from the ancient times. This tradition is backed by
considerable evidence.

Of utmost importance is the identification by Thomas Barthel of a complex
lunar calendrical sequence on Mamari tablet, as described in his
GRUNDLAGEN, 1958. All the experts accept this discovery as valid. As S.R.
Fischer says in his book (RONGORONGO, Oxford, 1997, p. 233), quoting
Jacques Guy, the meaning of this passage can now be considered as known
"beyond reasonable doubt". The importance of this breakthrough is that
this proves that rongorongo is a complex and sophisticated writing system
(and not some arbitrary concatenation of meaningless symbols as implied
strongly e.g. by Jo Anne Van Tilburg, in EASTER ISLAND, British Museum
Press, 1994).

The basic fact about rongorongo is that it is widely believed to have been
a vital and important part of a living Easter Island cultural tradition up
to 1860's. After that came the Peruvian slave raids that devastated the
ancient EI culture.

I would like to consider now the possible contents of rongorongo boards.
What may these texts be telling us? The natural presupposition is that
they may contain ancient legends, genealogies, and perhaps records of
ritual observances.

Great many traditional local chants and legends have been collected by
scholars over the years. So are they perhaps keys to rongorongo
decipherment? But if so, if we do indeed have these potential Rosetta
Stones in our possession, why is there no persuasive decipherment as yet?

The question then becomes, what may be the nature of the relationship
between the traditional chants and the rongorongo writings? Are they
really so closely related?

It seems to me that the glyphs themselves were preserved by Pascuans very
conservatively throughout the ages up until the time when the tradition
was lost in the 19th c. There's very little evidence either of variation
or of a history of glyph development in the preserved texts. But the
language of the islanders probably changed over the centuries. And so, it
is quite likely that the correspondence may be quite remote between the
written language, itself, and the legends that were still preserved on the
island in the 19th c. as associated with various rongorongo boards. So
this may be the main reason why rongorongo presents such problems for
modern decipherers.

What about the interpretations of Metoro, one notable native informant? It
is my view that Metoro's reading of the tablets, as given to Bishop
Jaussen in Tahiti in 1873 was unreliable, and perhaps even worthless. In
this I agree with Jacques. Jaussen's acceptance of Metoro's
interpretations was rather uncritical. It is also to be noted that a
contemporaneous attempt also in Haiti by Croft, a more sceptical
investigator, to elicit readings from another Rapanui informant was quite
futile. The information supplied to Croft was shown by Croft himself as
utterly unreliable, since his informant read the same tablet in three
unrelated ways on three consecutive Sundays.

Both Metoro and Croft's informant were quite young men who left Rapanui to
work in Tahiti. It is not clear how and why either should have been
presumed to know so well what rongorongo was all about.

And yet there were still quite a few elder men whose knowledge of
tradition can be presumed to have been superior, and who were still living
on Rapanui at the time. These were interviewed a few years later by
William Thomson, assisted by Alexander Salmon.

The big and very obvious problem with Metoro's readings was that he
managed to provide over 200 pages of interpretation to some 5 short
tablets that he tried to interpret. His imagination was clearly running
wild. Logically, one would expect to see 5 short texts running to perhaps
5-10 pages in total! Indeed, Thomson's inquiries, on the other hand,
basically produced just that.

It seems on the surface of it like Metoro was making a lot of things, if
not everything, up. It is quite probable that Metoro was simply
"translating" the glyphs according to their shapes, just describing what
the form of each sign reminded him of, and making up his profuse,
self-contradictory, and often quite meaningless stories on that basis.
Why, for example, did Metoro provide so many words for coconut? Coconut,
after all, was unknown on Rapanui. Yet Metoro worked on a coconut
plantation in Tahiti. Is this where he got the idea?

Later, Jaussen produced a dictionary of glyphs on the basis of Metoro's
readings. Metoro actually did not play a role in compiling that

The importance given to Jaussen's dictionary by many subsequent
researchers seems to have been largely misplaced in my view. Such a highly
respected scholar as Barthel, himself, seemed to have fallen victim to all
that unreliable information, and was basically led on a false track,
although to be sure, later, he also came to accept that big problems
existed with Metoro's readings. It is to be noted that Barry Fell also
seemed to follow that path into nowhere in his own suggested translation
of rongorongo.

Nevertheless, the contribution of Barthel to the study of rongorongo is
very considerable indeed, since, for the first time, he published and
analysed all the available texts, and laid the basic technical groundwork
for all further research.

So let's come back to the question of the exact relationship of rongorongo
to traditional chants as provided by informants other than Metoro. As
Heyerdahl says in his long essay on rongorongo THE CONCEPT OF RONGORONGO
Kon-Tiki Museum, 1965, v. 2, pp. 345-385, as opposed to Metoro, and his
outlandish attempts at interpretation,

"The elder men of EI ... remained on their own island to be interrogated
by Salmon and Thomson." (p. 378)

These investigations were conducted in 1886 during William Thomson's visit
to EI. It certainly seems to me that much better information was obtained
from the older men.

Thomson was assisted in his research by Alexander P. Salmon, who was
highly respected by Pascuans. Indeed, Salmon was the first
Western-educated individual to take residence on the island and to show
keen interest in the island traditions. So Salmon was in fact the first
serious Western historian of Rapanui, and his contribution to the study of
island traditions is very important.

Thomson and Salmon interviewed a number of old men with clear memories of
pre-European times and customs. The interpretative texts they provided to
Thomson were much more reasonable, compared with Metoro's.

"These proper texts ... were quite meaningful and of a length in
reasonable proportion to the limited space on a piece of wood" (Heyerdahl,
p. 382)

Thomson's principal informant was Ure Vaeiko, a very old man at the time.
As a youngster, he became a servant of King Ngaara, and he served him for
a long time. King Ngaara, himself, was apparently the leading rongorongo
expert of his time. And so, Ure Vaeiko had the opportunity to memorise
these traditional narratives quite well.

Shortly after King Ngaara's death came the brutal Peruvian slave raids
(1862) that devastated the ancestral traditions of EI. Most of the
island's population was abducted into slavery. Very few returned home.

It was clear to Thomson and others that Ure Vaeiko, just like Metoro,
could not give clear meanings of separate glyphs. This in itself seems
quite important. Yet, nevertheless, Ure Vaeiko provided the traditional
chants that were associated with rongorongo texts shown to him by Thomson.
Ure Vaeiko seemed to be quite certain that these chants and legends he
recited were the ones that were associated with these specific tablets in
the old times. When Thomson tried to confirm Ure Vaeiko's readings later
with other informants, to his satisfaction, a separate confirmation was
provided by another old informant, Kaitae.

Also, a lot of valuable information agreeing substantially with Thomson's
was gathered on the island later by Knoche in 1911, and Routledge in
1914-15. And also, yet more recently by Englert. Heyerdahl analyses all
this information in his 1965 essay in some detail.

It seems probable to me that the language of the islanders changed
considerably over the centuries (but of course this matter is hotly
disputed, this being the big crux). If so, then the correspondence between
the written language, and the associated traditional chants as preserved
in the 19th century would seem problematic. Indeed, the evidence that I've
looked into seems to point strongly to our best native informants
remembering the chants associated with certain specific tablets quite
well, but having trouble associating the individual words of their chants
and the individual written characters.

The most difficult problem is to determine which language exactly was
spoken on EI in the earliest period. And here, of course, we need to deal
with the historical theories of Heyerdahl. According to him, the earliest
language was probably S American.

In his essay, Heyerdahl provides evidence to show similarities between
rongorongo and some extremely obscure ancient S American scripts,
especially the Cuna script of Panama, and native writing systems in the
area of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. He also lists some interesting
associated cultural parallels between these areas. Also, he details some
rather intriguing iconographic parallels between rongorongo and the
carvings on the famous Gateway of the Sun in Tiwanaku.

As described by Heyerdahl, there's significant evidence of reliable native
Rapanui informants indicating that some oldest tablet texts, or parts of
texts, may have been read in some obscure old language different from
Rapanui language of the 19th c. We even have one seemingly ancient chant,
first attested by Routledge, and rediscovered on EI by Heyerdahl in 1956,
that is almost completely incomprehensible to anyone on Rapanui. This is
the _he timo te ako-ako_ chant.

I tend to agree with Jacques that it is probable that the actual knowledge
of the rongorongo script may have been forgotten for quite some time on EI
even before the Europeans first appeared on the scene.

In this essay, Heyerdahl also describes in detail and analyses a very
unusual trove of written materials that he came across while digging on
Rapanui in 1956. These previously unknown texts, written on paper, were
provided to him by some islanders. Barthel's essay in the same volume
confirms the importance of these documents, while pointing out that much
of their content was based on Bishop Jaussen's dictionary lists that
somehow made it back to the island from Tahiti. These previously unknown
texts, dating approximately to the turn of the present century, show that
some modern Easter Islanders were still keenly interested in rongorongo
and tried to work out some of its mysteries for themselves.



EASTER ISLAND, in EASTER ISLAND, Kon-Tiki Museum, 1965, v. 2, pp. 345-385.
Here's the catalogue listing for this volume.

        AUTHOR: Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island
                    and the East Pacific, 1955-1956
  TITLE: Reports. With contributions by Thor Heyerdahl [and]
                    Edwin N. Ferdon, Jr., editors [and others.]
     PUBLISHED: [Stockholm Forum Pub. House] 1961-65

 SERIES: Monographs of the School of American Research and the
          Kon-Tiki Museum no.24, pt.1-2

Yuri Kuchinsky -=O=- [2]

If ignorance is bliss, why aren't there more happy people?

Click here to go one level up in the directory.