Archive for April, 2013

The Other Easter Island Mystery, Part Three: Doing the Rongo Thing

By: The Scribe on April, 2013

easterisland rongo2In Part One of this series, we learned how the mysterious Rongorongo script appeared on Easter Island at a date of unknown origin; in Part Two, we learned about the glyphs and how they’re read.

While Rongorongo remains undeciphered, there are plenty of scholars with their own theories on what the texts say.

There are about 120 symbols in Rongorongo, and numerous attempts to decipher the texts. One text that we do understand, a little bit, is just a portion from a tablet that contains a lunar calendar. And no one can actually read the calendar. But it’s a start!

While it seems like, with today’s modern technology, we should be able to crack just about any code—and isn’t that what a language is? Logical, ordered code!—there are a few obstacles to decipherment of the Rongorongo tabets. One is that there are very few texts remaining to read from, leaving only around 15,000 legible glyphs to work with.

rongrongo3There’s also the problem of context! Historians and linguists don’t have accurate contextual information about where the tablets came from specifically, or any illustrations or parallels to texts that they can understand. And as if that wasn’t enough, the modern language of Easter Island descendants—Rapa Nui—has been heavily influenced by Tahitian and no longer resembles its previous form (again eliminating any chance of parallels!).


What, then, do we know about the tablets’ content?

Very, very little. And we may never know!

Here are what a few attempts at decipherment came up with:

  • Monsignor Jaussen (1868): Chants about the king & others doing specific tasks.
  • William J. Thomson (1886): Nonsense creation chants, with beings begetting other beings.
  • Dr. Alan Carroll (1982): A priestess flees an erupting volcano and other catastrophes, ending up on Easter Island.
  • Dr. Steven Fisher (1995): Creation chants with hundreds of repetitions of something he interpreted as a formula reading “X copulated with Y, there issued forth Z.”

However, all of these interpretations have been dismissed in one way other another (particularly the more fanciful interpretations such as Dr. Carroll’s)… and of the many, many attempts at decipherment, none have been accepted as close or even somewhat close to an accurate decipherment.

It seems that the Easter Island Rongorongo script may remain one of the world’s unsolved mysteries after all!

The Other Easter Island Mystery, Part Two: Don’t Use the Rongo Glyph!

By: The Scribe on April, 2013

rongorongo (1)Terrible word puns in the titles for this series aside, these articles introduce the nearly-unknown script from Easter Island called Rongorongo. In Part One, we learned that no one is quite sure when the script was actually invented, or why! Only that it was forgotten for hundreds of years, and tends to get overshadowed by the island’s giant stone statues.

Rongorongo uses symbols known as glyphs to convey meaning through the script, though what the script says…? No one knows! To this day, Rongorongo remains one of the undeciphered languages of the world.

What is known is that the glyphs were written left to right and bottom to top in a form called reverse boustrophedon. That means the reader starts at the bottom left corner, reads to the end of a line, then rotates the tablet 180 degrees to read the next line! Yes, that means the line above and below the one you’re reading are upside-down.

But if you finish the “page” and flip it over, the line continues from where it left off, meaning it now is read from top to bottom! Of course, the big question here is, what did they do for the giant tablets? You can’t flip those around… so maybe the inhabitants were just really good at reading upside-down script!

The glyphs themselves are similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs in that they’re stylized versions of objects or shapes (human, animal, geometric, plant) and can be drawn together to form what are assumed to be compound concepts or words. Birds are common in the script, along with turtles (who seem to have giant ears), fish, and arthropods.

Rongorongo-sample-enEaster Island has a number of well-known petroglyphs, but only a few of these symbols in the script are similar to those!

How were the tablets carved? Tradition on the island says that they were cut with obsidian shards or shark teeth, which would have easily created the smooth, deep cuts that form the glyph symbols. Some of the tablets appear to have been cut with a steel blade, however… but these are crudely made, and it’s somewhat telling that steel wasn’t available on the island until after the arrival of the Spanish explorers!

While the script hasn’t been deciphered yet, what do historians think it might say?

Stay tuned for Part 3…!

The Other Easter Island Mystery, Part One: Write or Rongorongo?

By: The Scribe on April, 2013

easterisland rongoRongorongo 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.

rongorongoEvidently, 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…!

Richard III’s Painful Scoliosis Treatments

By: The Scribe on April, 2013

Richard_III_of_EnglandAnyone who suffers from scoliosis knows that it can be a lot of work to fix, if that’s even possible. Modern medical advances have made it possible to correct scoliosis in many cases, but what about folks who lived in ancient times?

Although it wasn’t as long ago as, say, Pharaoh Akhenaten’s scoliosis problems, recent studies on the newly uncovered bones of King Richard III have revealed that not only did he suffer from the spine-curving condition, but he also may have undergone some incredibly painful medical treatments to try and straighten things out.

Previous work has showed that the condition likely set in during the King’s teen years, and researcher Mary Ann Lund of the University of Leicester’s School of English has learned about the types of treatments available for scoliosis during the 1400s.

While there isn’t exactly evidence on the bones to support the one treatment available to the nobility… that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. In an interview with LiveScience, Lund said that “it developed after the age of about 10 … so he probably would have been treated as an adolescent as well as during his adult life.”

Doctors in the 1400s believed that scoliosis (and many other medical issues) was caused by imbalanced humors in the body—and considering how severe Richard III’s scoliosis was, his treatment would have gone far beyond a simple ointment or two.

richard spineOne likely treatment was called traction, and yes, it operated on the same principle as the torture device known as the Rack. To treat scoliosis through traction, ropes were tied underneath the patient’s armpits and around the legs. Then then ropes were pulled at each end in order to stretch out the patient’s spine.

Then as part of long-term care, patients were encouraged to wear the equivalent of a modern back brace—such as a long piece of metal or wood along their spine.

Did the methods work? Evidently, determining that is impossible, but “it seems likely that the condition was painful and would have restricted his lung capacity,” says Lund.

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