Rongorongo is an indigenous Polynesian hieroglyphic script… and you’ve probably never heard of it before!
There’s a reason for that: it wasn’t discovered until the 19th-century on Easter Island. And of course, when talking about Easter Island, it just so happens that some giant pieces of stone tend to grab the spotlight…
While there hasn’t been much in the way of direct dating for the script, the only tablet that has been carbon dated (Tablet Q) resulted in a date of “sometime after 1680.” However, one of the specific glyphs—glyph 67—appears to represent the Easter Island palm tree, which went extinct around 1650. So, we know that the script is at least that old, if not older.
Part of the trouble with dating this ancient language stems from the Spanish explorers, who annexed the island in 1770. When the treaty was signed by both the Spanish and Easter Island chiefs, some of these Rongorongo glyphs were used—and some scholars have speculated that maybe the language was invented after the Spanish arrived and used for the treaty in particular.
Evidently, no explorer reported seeing the script prior to 1864, causing some historians to believe that the script may have been a result of trans-cultural diffusion—in other words, the locals saw Spanish writing and were inspired to create their own writing system.
But if that happened, it means the writing system was invented, used widely, disappeared, and became almost completely forgotten within—quite literally—less than a century. This would be highly unusual for any language!
Some have suggested that because the forest-clearing of Easter Island for agricultural use (and thus for permanent residents through colonization) began around 1200, the invention of Rongorongo can’t be earlier than the 13th-century—but that’s still a much later date than placing it at the Spanish annexation.
So, what does Rongorongo actually look like and what do the characters mean?
Stay tuned for Part 2…!