The undeciphered Easter Island script is unlike any known writing system

A mysterious script inscribed on wooden tablets from Easter Island is completely unlike any other known text form, suggesting it may represent an independent writing system unique to the island.

After radiocarbon dating several ancient objects, researchers have now discovered that the earliest engravings predate the arrival of Europeans, adding strength to the idea that writing was invented locally and uninfluenced by foreign writing systems.

The carvings, known as the Rongorongo script, were first noticed by outsiders in 1864, after which they were all destroyed or shipped abroad. Today, only 27 copies of the script are known to exist, although none are housed on Easter Island itself.

Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is located some 3,800 kilometers off the coast of Chile and is one of the most remote pieces of land in the world. It is best known for its gigantic head-shaped monuments called moai. Unfortunately, by the end of the eighteenth century, the local indigenous culture had been wiped out by disease outbreaks and raids perpetrated by Europeans, who first reached the island in the 1720s.

Production of Rongorongo scripts therefore ceased and the writing system has yet to be deciphered by Western scholars. In describing the scripts, the authors of a new study write that “the existing texts are relatively long and written using pictorial signs, often called ‘glyphs’.”

“The shapes of the Rongorongo boards represent different types of images, such as human postures and body parts, animals, plants, tools, celestial bodies, etc.,” they continue. When and how this form of notation emerged is difficult to say, and while it is possible that contact with literate Europeans acted as a “stimulus for its creation,” the study’s authors note that the “pictorial signs were not found on any known look like writing’.

“In fact, they show the closest parallels in the motifs of ancient rock-carved art found on the island,” the researchers write. Such an observation suggests that the Rongorongo script may be one of the few examples of writing that was invented completely independently – as happened in places like Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Central America.

However, the only two tablets that have been reliably dated so far turned out to come from trees felled in the first half of the nineteenth century, when contact with outsiders had already been established. To investigate further, the study authors dated four more Rongorongo scripts that were removed from the island by missionaries in 1869 and are now housed in Rome, Italy.

The results indicated that three of the carvings were made on wood from trees felled in the nineteenth century, while the fourth was felled several hundred years earlier, between 1493 and 1509. The tablet therefore dates at least 200 years before the arrival of foreigners on the island. This suggests that the Rongorongo script was indeed developed in complete isolation.

Rongorongo script

Another Rongorongo script, dated to the nineteenth century

Image credit: INSCRIBE ERC project

Interestingly enough, it turned out that the tablet was made from it Podocarpus latifolia, which does not grow on Easter Island, but is the national tree of South Africa. According to the researchers, the wood was typically used to make ship masts from the Middle Ages onwards and could therefore have washed up on Easter Island as driftwood from a sunken European ship.

It is therefore impossible to say exactly how long the piece of wood spent at sea before being salvaged and inscribed. Nevertheless, the study authors conclude that “if [the tablet’s] exceptional age indicates that the local people of Rapa Nui could have invented a writing system without influence or input from outside agents. Rongorongo could represent one of the few independent inventions of writing in human history, adding a layer of complexity to the story of cultural history. and historical development of the people of Rapa Nui.”

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *