What does ‘rongorongo’ actually mean? The term rongorongo refers to the script itself not a particular language and it is a Polynesian word that carries the notion of ‘chants’ and ‘recitations’. So we are arguably dealing with a script that is believed to carry magical or religious weight.
Two Known Facts There are two certain facts we have about rongorongo. The first is that it is written in reverse-boustrophedon style; a unique style of writing in the world. Janssen, a bishop of Tahiti, coined the term in around 1870. We are also pretty confident that at least one of the tablets contains what seems to be a lunar calendar.
What do we know of previous decipherment attempts? Some extracts of the script may contain zodiacal information owing to similarities between some symbols and the western zodiac. Henesy points out similarities between some rongorongo signs and aspects of the Indus Valley script. Fischer believes the script to be a recent, modern development towards the end of the Easter Island civilisation in the 18th century. Russians like Knorosov identify logograms and phonograms among the signs or symbols. Germans like Barthel believe that the script encodes the mythological origins of the Easter Islanders specifically and Polynesians in general. Pozdniakov believes there may be as few as 55 signs and that the written language may be a syllabic system.
Indus Valley Script (examples to compare with rongorongo signs)
What else can we be pretty sure of? Rongorongo is very likely to be a written form of an older form of Rapanui that is a language related to Tahitian (Jacques Guy). The problem is, how similar is the script to the ancient language? (NB it could be a priestly form – i.e. highly stylized).
Origins of the Script Either the script was an ancient import to the island with a 1500 year history, Or it was invented independently and uniquely on the island itself, Or it developed out of western influence after explorers from Europe discovered the island in the 18th century. Oral tradition on the island has it that the legendary founder Hotu Matu’a brought 67 tablets from Polynesia to the island when he first discovered Easter Island and settled there.
PROBLEM! If the script really was an ancient writing system, why are there no records on stone for example? All we have are a few petroglyphs, some of which bear some resemblance to some rongorongo symbols. (E.g. those found in Ana O Keke cave).
RESULT? The script possibly developed, therefore, some time after European contact in the 1770s but before the demise of the Easter Island civilisation in the late 1860s when 94% of the population was wiped out. But that means the script came and went within 90 years or so.
What else do we know about the signs / symbols themselves? There is a possible corpus of between 14,000 and 17,000 signs. The Santiago staff has the most signs and longest inscription. The Tahua tablet has the longest wooden tablet inscription. In 1886 the American William Thomson showed photographs of the script to an old Rapa Nui man who was able to chant from them, although he was scared to at first, because of taboo.
Sketch taken from the Tahua Tablet (front side)
Conclusions The script was probably a form of the written Rapanui language that was highly stylized and reserved for ritualistic purposes. It is likely to contain genealogies, important dates and some mythological stories (e.g. a creation myth to explain the origins of the Easter Island people and their belief system). It would be dangerous to speculate further until it can be ascertained exactly how the written language works. Pozdniakov’s idea about a syllabic system sounds very plausible and may yet prove to be correct. If so, developing the phoneme inventory will be the next step in discovering the morpho-phonological structure of the language, leading to a syntactic understanding of the script and possible decipherment.
Some Modern Rapanui Phrases Hello! Good morning! Good afternoon! Good evening! - 'Iorana! How are you ? (singular) - Pehe koe? How are you ? (plural) - Pehe korua? Fine! - Riva-riva! (often sounds like diva-riva, or riba-riba) Please - Ana hanga koe Thank you - Maururu You're welcome - O te aha no What is your name? - Ko ai tou ingoa? To your health! - Manuia (paka-paka)! Goodbye - 'Iorana (old: Ko mao a )