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

By: The Scribe on Friday, April 26, 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…!


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