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Rongo-Rongo Tablets

a "set" of wooden objects covered with glyphs that may or may not represent a form of writing

In 1864, Eugène Eyraud, a lay friar of the Congrégation de Picpus assigned to Easter Island, made the following report:

In every hut one finds wooden tablets or sticks covered in several sorts of hieroglyphic characters: They are depictions of animals unknown on the island, which the natives draw with sharp stones. Each figure has its own name; but the scant attention they pay to these tablets leads me to think that these characters, remnants of some primitive writing, are now for them a habitual practice which they keep without seeking its meaning.

Eyraud's report went unnoticed until 1868, when the Bishop of Tahiti received a gift from recent Catholic converts on Easter Island -- a small wooden board covered in what appeared to be hieroglyphic writing. The Bishop immediately asked Father Hippolyte Roussel, the "priest in charge of Easter Island," to gather as many similar objects from Easter Island inhabitants as possible, as well as any natives capable of translating them. Roussel was only able to find about 20 wooden tablets, however, and no islander appeared to know how to read them. To this day no one knows what happened to the vast number of tablets reported by Eyraud, nor has anyone been able to conclusively determine what, if anything, those that remain "say," if anything.

'negative' of a Rongo-Rongo Tablet
Rongo-Rongo Tablet

Decipherment Claims

In 1958, Thomas Barthel of the University of Hamburg (Germany) reported that he had deciphered the script and that it faintly resembled ancient Chinese.

Barthel's findings were disputed by Thor Heyerdahl, who led an expedition to Easter Island in 1955-1956. According to Heyerdahl, the rongo-rongo tablets are very similar to ideographs found at Tiahuanaco in Bolivia. The most important similarity is the use of a form of writing called boustrophedon (one line reads from right to left and the next from left to right), a writing system only found in the Andes and on Easter Island. Therefore, according to Heyerdahl, the ancestors of Easter Islanders came from South America.

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> South America >> Chile >> Easter Island

This page was last updated on February 20, 2017.