Preliminary Report on the Study of the Written Language of Easter Island




The Journal of the Polynesian Society

Vol. 66, No.1




Un langage phonétique et symbolique archaïque qui différerait du langage polynésien actuel.



Ó Jean Hervé Daude


THE INVESTIGATION of the Easter Island written language is based on extremely few sources. The Easter Island (Rapa-Nui) sources of the written language are represented by more or less well preserved wooden tablets, which are 13 in number, one staff or warder with numerous hieroglyphs on it, 8 ill-preserved tablets (rather fragments of tablets), one breast ornament (rei-miro) with hieroglyphs on it and the records of a native Tomenika made on paper.

It is hardly probable that the number of monuments will ever be expanded. However, some new findings are possible. It is worth mentioning that one of the fragments was recently in 1938, found on Easter Island, on Poike Hill. According to the latest information the Norwegian scientist Thor Heyerdahl who made excavations on Easter Island found papers there with inscriptions on them. And finally, according to local legends one of the chiefs had hidden several tablets with hieroglyphs somewhere in a cave and they might still be found.

The tablets that we know of are scattered all over the world and are kept in different museums. In the scientific literature either the tablets are listed with indication of the museums where they are kept or the museums are listed with indication of the tablets kept there. This system is liable to inexactitudes which can easily be avoided if the tablets are listed according to the texts which are written on them. Below is a list of texts:—

I.—Tahua. Braine le Comte Museum, Belgium.

II.—(a) Santiago (a big tablet). The Santiago National Museum, Chile.

(b) MAE (big). Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the USSR Academy of Sciences (MAE), Leningrad. Collection 402-13a.

(c) MAE (small). Same place. Collection 402-13b.

One finds the same text on all these tablets with little variant readings.

III.—Aruku Kurenga. The Braine le Comte Museum. The five lines copied by Weisser on Tahiti in 1878 represent a fragment of the Aruku Kurenga text, lines 19 to 23. In the Imbelloni 2 list of tablets this text is under N XXIV.

IV.—The staff (or warder) with inscriptions. The National Museum of Santiago de Chile.

V.—The Berlin tablet. Ethnological Museum, Berlin.

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VI.—(a) Santiago (a small tablet). The National Museum, Santiago.

(b) The London tablet. British Museum, London. On both sides of this tablet is written the same text as on one side of the tablet VI (a).

VII.—Keiti (Apai). The tablet was kept in the library of the Louvain University. It was destroyed by fire in 1914, but there are photographs of it.

VIII.—Kohau o te ranga (Mamari, Miro, Ate-a-renga). Braine le Comte Museum.

IX.—Eaha to rau ariki. The National Museum, Washington.

X.—Atua-matariri. Same place of keeping.

XI.—Ka ihi uiga. Braine le Comte Museum.

XII.—The Honolulu fragment of a tablet containing 11 lines of the text. The Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

XIII.—The Honolulu fragment. 4 lines. Same place of keeping as above.

XIV.—The Honolulu fragment of 2 lines. Place of keeping same.

XV.—The Honolulu fragment, 1 line. Place of keeping same.

XVI.—The Jaussen fragment. Chauvet collection, Paris.

XVII.—The Vienna fragment (the big tablet), 5 lines, 173 hieroglyphs. The Ethnological Museum, Vienna.

XVIII.—The Vienna fragment (the small one), 61 heiroglyphs. The Ethnological Museum, Vienna.

XIX.—Rei-miro. British Museum, London.

XX.—The Poike fragment, 4 lines, 103 hieroglyphs. The National Museum, Santiago.

XXI.—The Tomenika record on paper. Found by the Routledge expedition.

One might also mention the signatures of some chiefs got by Gonzalez in 1771.

The Rapa-Nui names of the tablets (in cases when they are known) are accidental as a rule and have no connection to the texts written on them. For instance, Tahua means an oar and characterizes only the form of the tablet. The meaning of many other names is not clear (Apai, Keiti, Aruku Kurenga). Some names have been given by W. J. Thomson (Atua-Matariri, Ka-ihi-uiga, Eaha-to-rau-ariki). “The tablet of prisoners”—Kohau-o-te-Ranga—can be considered as the only authentic name among such tablets.

The best publication of the above texts are the following: S. Chauvet: L'île de Pâques et ses mystères, 1936; W. J. Thomson: Te pito te henua or Easter Island, 1889; Sbornik muzeya antropologii i etnografii, Vol. XI, 1949; Man, January, 1904, and July, 1938; Y. M. Brown: The Riddle of the Pacific, 1924, pp. 87, 88, 92, 96; S. Routledge; The Mystery of Easter Island, 1919, p. 252; Runa, Vol. IV, 1951, Tables VI and VII; Mitteilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien, Bd. XVI, 1886.

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Still unpublished are the texts of the Berlin (V) and of the two Honolulu tablets (XII, XV). One of the unpublished Honolulu fragments (XV) causes doubt among scientists as to its authenticity. The same applies to one of the Vienna fragments (XVIII). The tablet kept in Rome and the rei-miro kept in Sydney are evidently false and have not been listed by us.

Of greatest interest are texts I-IV which are also the longest (from 1,000 up to 1,500 signs and more), and, to all appearance, narrative ones. Probably the Berlin text also belongs to the same group (about 1,160 signs). Texts VI-IX form a single group. These texts represent lists.

Texts XX-XXI, as correctly pointed out by Imbelloni, 3 form a separate group. They differ from other texts by the fact that they have no boustrophedon and also by a particular the form of signs (italics). Quite distinct from the others is text XIX, being the only text on rei-miro.

The attempts to decipher the texts written on tablets with the assistance of the natives ended in failure but revealed some very important facts.

The Tahiti Bishop Jaussen (1870) asked one native, Metoro Tanaure, an immigrant from Easter Island, to read the tablet Aruku Kurenga. Metoro “read” the tablet, but as is evident from the analysis of the published part of the text, he did not so much read the text as interpreted what was represented by every single sign. Of course, the text thus read was incoherent and did not convey any sense. With the assistance of Metoro, Jaussen compiled a catalogue of signs with an indication of what each of the signs denotes. 4

Thomson 5 tried to make a native by the name of Ure Vaeiko read the tablets. The man “read” five of them, but his “reading” was yet less authentic and close to the truth than that of Metoro. All attempts at finding something in common between the signs on the tablets and the reading of Ure Vaeiko for the time being ended in failure.

Routledge 6 tried to obtain some information from one Tomenika, a native of Easter Island. The man drew several signs on paper and told her that “the words were new, but the letters were old.” What he probably meant was that the objects and phenomena denoted by signs are now expressed in Tahitian or that the text was recorded in the archaic language. Routledge could get no further data from Tomenika.

It was possible however, to obtain some information about the texts written on the tablets from the inhabitants of Easter Island. Imbelloni cites the following texts with his commentary 7:—

1. Kohau kiri taku ki te atua—hymns to Gods, including the songs which were sung at the annual festival in Orongo.

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2. Kohau tau—the chronicles indicating events which occurred in a particular year.

3. Kohau ika—the lists of fallen warriors and those killed for a religious sacrifice.

4. Kohau manu—possibly magic songs which were supposed to lure migrant birds to the Island. There are indications that the song manu was sung before a murder.

5. Kohau pare—probably those were the songs sung while tattooing people.

6. Genealogies.

Science also knows the name of the magic text kohau o te ranga which helped to capture the enemy warriors.

According to Jeiseler, the written language of Easter Island was used also for conveying short messages to the chiefs of other villages, the import of which the messengers were not supposed to know. 8

We accept Imbelloni's commentary in the whole, but we think that it is provable that one tablet could have several different texts.

The data at our disposal to begin with was scarce. This applies not only to the texts mentioned above but also to the language itself. The Rapa-Nui dictionary compiled by W. Churchill is not complete. 9 Fortunately, it can be supplemented by using the Rapa-Nui texts recorded by Alfred Métraux and, to some extent, from the dictionaries of other Polynesian languages, especially Maori. As for the ancient culture of Easter Island, the information is more or less sufficient. 10

The Metoro-Jaussen catalogue is of great significance.

Until recently it was hardly taken into consideration. J. Macmillan Brown wrote that this catalogue was not helpful in deciphering the texts of the tablets. 11

Lately scientists have tried to read the texts written on the tablets with the help of this catalogue alone, considering its data authentic (Wolff and Lanyon-Orgill). However, in our opinion, too much confidence in the catalogue and its absolute rejection are two extremes, both of which are wrong. In this connection it was especially gratifying for us to learn that the German ethnologist Thomas Barthel intended to make a critical analysis of Metoro-Jaussen catalogue and introduce some corrections into it on the basis of studying the “readings” of Metoro recorded by Jaussen. 12

The Metoro-Jaussen catalogue stands in need of emendation. Thus, for instance, sign I (see Table I) is interpreted in the catalogue as “a plot of land,” which in Rapa-Nui is “koti o henua” and “rotia henua” as we have in the catalogue. Some signs are interpreted not in the Rapa-Nui language (R), but in Tahitian. Thus the sign of the mouth (2) is read vaha (R. haha), the sign of the frigate-bird (3) is read taha (R. tavake), etc. Evidently Metoro had to resort to Tahitian words - 9  because Jaussen could not very well understand the Rapa-Nui words. There are cases when Jaussen translated the native words incorrectly. For instance, he translated the word hura (4) as “a small net,” whereas the word hura stands for “sling” which is confirmed by the sign itself.

The word pakia (5) Jaussen translates as “sperm-whale.” But in the language of Rapa-Nui sperm-whale is ivi heheu which is tohora in Tahitian. The word pakoo (R) means “to bite” (about fish). 13 That proves that the sign does not represent “a sperm-whale” but something else.

Sign 6 was interpreted by Metoro as hoea, and translated by Jaussen as “an instrument for tattooing.” But the instrument for tattooing looked quite differently and had a different name too, namely uhi. 14 Evidently the word hoea is translated incorrectly. Hoe stands for “oar, knife, blade” and the shape of the sign really suggests an obsidian knife 15 or the lower part of an oar in cross section. 16

Sign 7 was interpreted by Metoro as mataa—“the obsidian head of a spear.” But the obsidian head of spear looks quite different. This sign reminds one of a stone knife—ka-hi.

Sign 8 (“gourd-earth”) was interpreted by Metoro as rutua te paku which means “to beat a drum.” In fact there was a musical instrument on Easter Island to make which it was necessary to use both a gourd and earth. A hole was dug in the ground on the bottom of which a big gourd was put filled with tapa or grass. The gourd was covered with a thin stone plate on which the time was beaten with feet for dancers and singers. 17

The study of the written language of Easter Island as an independent system of writing has made little progress. The data on the whole was not even so much as formally analyzed. Métraux makes a just remark that “Such a study is a slow and complicated task because of the abundance of signs, the innumerable variants of each sign, and the many combinations of signs.” 18

Some tablets however were analyzed in a formal way, but the analysis was not an exhaustive one. Back in 1874 J. Park Harrison studied in detail the small Santiago tablet. 19 A. Piotrowski studied two tablets in 1925 which belonged to the MAE and compiled a catalogue of signs contained in the texts written on the tablets. According to his calculations there were 227 signs. 20 A later study of the same tablets was made by a young scientist B. G Kudrjavtsev who made an unexpected and interesting discovery, to wit: in the whole it is one and the same text that is written on these tablets. He found out also that the same text is written on the big Santiago tablet. 21

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B. G. Kudrijavtsev died during the last war and never completed his work. There exist two more tablets with parallel texts—the London and the Santiago (small). The same text with slight differences is written on both sides of the London tablet and on part of one side of the small Santiago tablet. It follows from the above that each side of a tablet or both sides of it do not necessarily carry one complete text. The reverse side of a tablet may carry the continuation of the text written on the other side. The continuation of a text may even be transferred onto a different tablet.

In 1940 Métraux made a formal analysis of two tablets: Tahua and Aruku Kurenga. He drew attention to the fact that on both tablets there were repeated combinations and groups of signs, and parallel portions of the text. 22

On the Tahua tablet it is lines 3 and 5 that are parallel and also lines 7 and 13. On the Aruku Kurenga parallel text is found in lines 15 and 16.

We tried to subject to formal analysis all data available to us. The texts of the tablets very often have rows. By rows we mean sequel groups of signs in which either the first or the last sign (or a combination of signs) are repeated systematically.

Most frequent are the rows with initial combinations of signs denoting a seated human being, a stone, moss (in texts VI, IX, Table II, I). After this initial combination follows from 1 to 6 signs. In the Tahua text one finds a complex row in which the signs of the earth, sky and hibiscus are repeated regularly (27 groups of signs; Table II, 2). In the same text there are two rows with recurring signs denoting plants. These rows are repeated in text III but in inverted succession. Text II has a row with recurring fish-signs (8 groups). In text III there is a row with the recurring signs of a hat and birds (5 groups, Table II, 3). Text VI has two rows with the initial sign of fish, one row with the initial sign of a human being (5 groups), and one row with the initial signs of a hat and a hand (7 groups, Table II, 4). Text VII has a row of the initial double combination of the signs of the earth and the rat (Table II, 5). Text VIII has a row of recurring combinations of signs of a plant, lizard and stone (Table II, 6). Text IX has a row of the initial combination of the signs of the sun and stone (Table II, 7). Text X has a row with initial sign of a double-headed bird (Table II, 8). Text XI has a row with initial combination of the signs of a human being (with an object in one hand) and a bird (Table II, 9). Text XVI has a row of the recurring sign of ariki (Table II, 10). The list of rows quoted are not claimed to be exhaustive.

It is possible to isolate independent groups of words and, what is still more important, single words from the continuous text of the tablets.

On the Kohau-o-te-ranga tablet combination 1 (Table III) is repeated seven times and combination 2 six times (once without the last sign). These combinations and also combinations and groups of signs between them may be isolated as independent parts of the text. - 11  The larger portion of the Kohau-o-te-ranga text can be divided on the whole into such separate combinations.

Combination 3 (Table III) on the Aruku Kurenga tablet is repeated twice. Combination 4 is repeated almost exactly in combination 5. Combination 6 is repeated twice and the last four signs are repeated in the second variant.

Combinations 7, 8 and 9 (Table III) are of particular interest. In them one can distinguish separate words. If we exclude from the first combination the frequently recurring sign of a standing human being, from the second combination the sign of a seated human being and from the third combination the recurring sign of an axe we shall find that the remaining signs in all the three fragments are almost identical and follow each other in the same succession. Evidently, we deal with three variants of one text.

We believe that in the near future we shall be able to prepare and publish a summary of texts from the Easter Island tablets in the form we are used to, i.e., reading to the right and from top to bottom. At present we are bound to limit ourselves to a few examples.

The number of recurrent combinations and groups of signs on the tablets is sufficiently large. This last circumstance is of special importance for the determination of the character of the written language of Easter Island.

If the signs on the tablets convey the sound speech, then one might expect frequent repetitions of identical combinations and groups of signs. Métraux expresses the same opinion: “If the signs are a form of writing corresponding to words and syllables, groups or sequences of them will be repeated many times, especially for a Polynesian language.” 23 The analysis of the Kohau-o-te-ranga and Aruku Kurenga tablets shows that it is really so. The Tahua tablet provides a more striking example still, since it is full of repetitions.

Combination 14 (Table IV) which begins a row on the small Santiago tablet is also to be encountered on the big Santiago tablet. Combination 17 is found on the Keiti tablet and in the parallel texts of the small Santiago and London tablets. Combination 4 is taken from the small Santiago tablet but it is almost exactly repeated on the Kohau-o-te-ranga tablet. Combination 6 is repeated on the Aruku Kurenga tablet nine times (in two instances without the last sign). Such stable combinations of signs in different contexts and even on different tablets apparently express independent phraseological units (or single words). Due to their recurrent repetition they can easily be distinguished from the rest of the text.

Combination 7 is an initial one in the row consisting of five groups on the Aruku Kurenga tablet (Table IV, 8, 9, 10, 11). It should be noted that the remaining signs of these groups directly follow each other (Table IV, 12). Thus, not only the combination itself but also intermediate signs can be isolated as independent phraseological units or separate words. The last two signs in combinations 8 and 10 can be isolated also because they are joint.

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Combination 13 is repeated on the Aruku Kurenga tablet twice. Combination 15 on the same tablet is almost exactly repeated in combination 16 with the only difference that the sign of “water” is substituted by the sign of “fish.”

Table IV shows fragments of the small Santiago tablet text which is almost identical with the London tablet text. Combinations 1-2-3 are one continuous portion of text. It is complete on the small Santiago tablet whereas on the London tablet there are only combinations 1 and 3, combination 2 being absent. The last combination can be considered as an independent phraseological unit.

The formal analysis of the texts shows that one can isolate phraseological units and words in parallel texts, in rows, in stable combinations of signs. Also for the same purpose one can analyze the cases where the signs are doubled (as will be shown below).

The written language of Easter Island comprises about 300 signs.

All these signs reflect the local environment and culture. Among them one finds pictures of man in various postures, animals, birds and fish and plants, dwellings, clothing, implements, weapons, utensils, artistic pieces, various natural phenomena, etc. We repeat that all signs are a reflection of the local environment and culture. This makes us assume a critical attitude towards the theories according to which the written language of Easter Island was derived from India, South America, etc.

The interpretations of Metoro Tanaure in many cases do not evoke any doubts. Such, for example, are the signs which denote according to Metoro a tortoise (honu), shark (mongo), fish (ika), etc. (Table V, 1-3). From this it does not follow, however, that the signs in the text must necessarily denote the words given by Metoro. To begin with, every word usually has synonyms to it. Thus, a tortoise is called on Easter Island not only honu but also kekei-pu and or qepu-kepu. Shark is not only mongo but also niuhi. In some cases Metoro gave Tahitian words and not Rapanuian words. Secondly, Metoro gave two and even three interpretations of some signs. For example, sign 4 (Table V) according to Metoro represents the sun (raa), star (hetu) or fire (ahi), and sign 5 (Table V) rain (ua) or wave (ngaru). And it is only the contexual situation that can determine which of these interpretations is correct. Besides it is not impossible that one sign could have different meanings. Sometimes one of the two interpretations is more general and the other more concrete. For instance, sign 6 (Table V) according to Metoro stands for a human being (tangata) or father (matua), sign 7 (Table V) stands for a human being (tangata) or Hotu-Matua (the legendary chief). We think that in these cases one should favour the more concrete version. Of special interest are double interpretations of signs when one interpretation explains the object shown on the tablet and the other, it seems, indicates how this sign should be read in the text. For example, according to Metoro sign 8 (Table V) denoting a hand (rima) could be read as mau (to grasp), and sign 9 (Table V) denoting a foot (vae) could be read as oho (to walk). Finally, there are reasons to believe that the meaning of the sign does - 13  not always correspond to the object represented. To wit: ika not only means “fish” but also “a killed,” “a sacrifice,” and the sign of fish could be used to convey the words “the killed,” “the sacrifice.”

Widespread is the opinion that the written language of Easter Island is ideographic. Metoro's readings of the texts found on Easter Island gave a strong impulse to such an opinion. Thus, B. G. Kudrjavtsev wrote: 'When we just start reading the table we are convinced that the language it is written in … is some variant of an ideographic written language, which did not yet reach the stage of syllabization.” 24 Such investigators as Lanyon-Orgill, although not denying the possibility of finding in these texts some elements of phonetic constitution in their practical attempts at deciphering signs interpret them as ideograms. 25

In our opinion, a correct definition of the written language of Easter Island was given by Professor Olderogge, who compared it with the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics at the early stages of development. 26

A formal analysis of the texts testifies to the fact that the written language of Easter Island expressed the spoken language. It is also confirmed by the very limited number of signs and their extreme standardisation. It is important to note the great number of double signs (when two identical signs or combination of signs follow one another (Table IV, 18). These double signs correspond very precisely with the character of the Easter Island language (and Polynesian languages in general), in which many words consist of a double morpheme. For example: paepae (a boat), riva-riva (good), uri-uri (black), etc. The number of reduplicated signs in the texts on the tablets is almost the same (in respect to the general number of signs) as the number of words with reduplicated morphemes (in respect to the general number of words in the language).

As has been already mentioned, one finds stable combinations of two and more signs in the texts. In many cases they are linked with each other. One can hardly doubt the fact that such combinations correspond to single words or phraseological units. On the basis of a preliminary study we can presumably isolate the following types of combinations (to make it more simple we mostly cite combinations of two signs):—

1. A combination of ideograms, i.e., of signs denoting whole words.

For example the combination of signs denoting “king” (ariki) and “hand” (mau) should evidently be read as ariki mau (the supreme chief) (Table V, 10). The combination of the signs of a human being (tangata) and flying bird (manu rere) can be read as tangata-manu (man-bird) (Table V, 11).

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2. A combination of an ideogram and a key sign (the latter points to the sense of the word but is not read).

For instance the combination of the signs of the sun (raa) and of the sky (rangi) is apparently read as raa (the sun). The sign of the sky shows in this case that it is the sun that is meant in the text since raa may also denote “day” (Table V, 12).

The combination of the signs of rain (ua) or a wave (ngaru) with that of the sky (rangi) is apparently read as ua (the rain); the word ua has some other meanings and the sign of the sky indicates that rain is meant in this case.

3. A combination of a phonetic and a key sign.

The combination of the sign of a walking man (according to Metoro tae ki te haka hiki ia, “to arrive home”) and the sign of the sky (rangi) should apparently be read as rangi (to send, to visit), the sign of the sky being used here as the phonetic one and the sign of a walking man as the key sign which indicates that the word rangi is connected with motion (Table V, 14). The word rangi has many different meanings.

4. Sometimes we encounter a purely phonetic spelling.

For example, the combination of the signs of the sun (raa) and rain (ua) can be read as raua (they). In one case there is the key sign of a man before this combination (Table V, 15, 16). The combination of three connected signs of the sun (raa), the incomprehensible sign (which may denote a foot (vae) turned to the left, in contradistinction to the sign of the foot turned to the right, which is oho according to Metoro) and the ideogram of a fish—can be read as ravaika (to fish) (Table V, 17).

Besides the examples of reading of separate words illustrating the principles of spelling, we deem it advisable to analyze fragments from the texts the contents of which is quite clear although not all words in them can be understood. Among the rows of signs mentioned above there is one row which is repeated in two big texts (I and III). This particular row deserves special attention.

The parallel texts (Table VI) begin with the sign of a boat (vaka). This is followed by the combination (repeated twice) of the signs of a walking man and the sky (which can be read as rangi—to send, to visit). Then follows a strange sign which is repeated four times (it is evidently a sign used in counting), signs of plants, of the foot (oho, “to go,” “to send”) and the sign of the father (matua). This row is followed by a few combinations of two signs, the sign of a plant (according to Metoro it means sugar cane, toa), being the first in all cases. Then follows a row consisting of ten groups of signs, each group ending in the sign of yam (uhi). We suppose that here we have ten denominations of different kinds of yam. The sign of the sun (raa) is included in all the ten names in combination with other signs, especially those denoting a bent arm. These signs are apparently used as phonetic ones. In fact many denominations of yam begin with the word ravei or - 15  ravi (ravei pako, ravei manga manga, ravi uri, ravi tea, ravi a kura kura, etc.). These two lists which give us denominations of plants are followed by several final signs, with the sign of man among them and succeeded by the sign of Hotu-Matua. The sign of man (according to Metoro tangata—man or koia—this) may convey the particle ko which usually precedes proper names. The particle ko is an abbreviated pronoun, koia.

As the legend goes (the Rapa-Nui text of the legend was published by Métraux) Hotu-Matua the legendary chief sent several people to Easter Island and then went there himself, bringing with him different cultivated plants, including yam, sugar cane and bananas, etc. According to the version of the legend recorded by Roussel, Hotu-Matua arrived in two boats with 400 people in each. It is followed by a description of the unloading of pigs, hens and different plants (yam, banana, sugar cane, taro, kumara, etc.). 27

There are reasons to believe that the analysed row of the text is a list of plants brought to the Easter Island by Hotu-Matua.

On the small Santiago tablet there is a row consisting of six groups of signs (Table VII, 1-6), the sign of man being the first in all groups. This gives us reason to believe that we have to do with a list of names. Probably in this row the sign of man (tangata or koia) conveys the particle ko, as before the name of Hotu-Matua. In the third group the sign of man is followed by the signs of a seated man with raised hands and a tortoise; in the fourth group the signs of the tortoise and the shark; in the fifth the signs of the shark and an octopus; in the sixth group we have only the sign of the octopus. Thus, the second sign of each group (after the sign of man) is the first in the next group. This position of signs shows that we have to do not simply with a list of names but with a genealogy which ascends from descendents to ancestors. The second sign in each group gives the name of the father. In Hotu-Matua's genealogy, recorded by Jaussen, it is this system which is used: Urakikena, Atuuraranga, Ataranga-a Miru, Mitiake, Miru-o-Hata, Hata-Miru, Hiru-a-Tumaheke, Tumaheke, Hotu-Matua.

One can cite many other similar names: father Pito, son Roto-Pito; father Vai-a-nuhe, son Ure-a-vai-a-nuhe, etc.

The name of the last ancestor in the genealogy is expressed by the sign of the octopus. It is followed by a group of signs consisting of an unintelligible sign, repeated four times, the signs of a going man, of the father (matua), and a combination of the signs of the sun and earth.

What strikes the eye is the fact that these signs or groups of them bear resemblance to the groups of signs which begin and finish the list of the plants brought by Hotu-Matua to Easter Island. Evidently the last ancestor of the genealogy arrived at Easter Island together with Hotu-Matua.

On the same side of the tablet there is a row consisting of three groups of signs (Table VIII, 1-3). The first in all groups is the sign of the fish (ika), which in this row apparently means “the killed.” In - 16  the first group of signs there is mentioned tangata-manu, “bird-man” (joint signs of a man and a bird), whose name is evidently expressed by the next two signs. In the second group we encounter the name of an ariki, which is expressed by the signs of a crowing cock and shark. This ariki is apparently the son of the person indicated in the third group by the signs of the shark and octopus (same signs as in the fourth group of the genealogical row). It is doubtless the same name. Between the signs of the shark and the octopus we find the sign of a spear (tao) which in this case stands for a possessive particle. (In proper names this particle may be omitted as in Hata-Miru, Miru-o-Hata, etc.)

In the Rapanuian language there were a few such particles (o, a, no, ta). In other cases the possessive particle is transmitted by the sign of stones; we may see it between the signs of the bay (hanga) and the tortoise (honu), which gives us apparently the name of a bay Hanga-o-Honu (Table V. 18).

As has been indicated above, according to the inhabitants of Rapa-Nui, among the ancient tablets one could find genealogical chronicles and lists of killed in wars, etc.

When the Austrian traveller W. Knoche showed some Easter Island signs to old native men on Rapa-Nui they recognised the sign of the fish. They said that fish denoted a man who was offered to gods as a sacrifice (tangata ika). They also said that each ahu had tablets with lists of persons sacrificed. The sign of the fish (ika) shows that we have to deal with sacrifices. The Rapa-Nui native Kapiera interpreted the text tau to Routledge and he also said that the sign of the fish meant “a killed man.”

The analysis of the combinations of signs shows that the written language of Easter Island is based on the same principles as all hieroglyphic systems of the world. It should be pointed out, however, that the written language of Easter Island does not express numerous auxiliary parts of speech. The usual Polynesian article “te” and other particles are lacking in the written language of Rapa-Nui.

It is likely that the texts are written in the archaic language which differs from the existing Polynesian languages. However, it would be more correct to assume that the written language of Easter Island is a primitive hieroglyphic in which the auxiliary parts of speech and affixes may easily be omitted. 

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BARTHEL, Thomas, 1955. In Cosmos 8.

BROWN, J. Macmillan, 1924. The Riddle of the Pacific. London, Fisher Unwin.

CHURCHILL, W., 1912. Easter Islands. The Rapanui Speech and the Peopling of South-east Polynesia. Carnegie Institute, Washington, pub. 174.

HARRISON, J. P., 1873. “The Hieroglyphics of Easter Island.” Journal of the Anthropological Institute, 3:370-383; 528.

IMBELLONI, J., 1951. “Las ‘Tabletas Parlantes’ de Pasqua, Monumentos de un Sistema Graphico Indo-Oceanico.” Runa 4, pts. 1-2.

JAUSSEN, Tepano, 1893. “L'île de Pâsques. Histoirique et Ecriture.” Bulletin de Geographie, Historique et Descriptive 2.

KUDRJAVTSEV, B. G., 1949. “The Written Language of Easter Island.” Sbornik Museya Antropologii i Etnografii 11.

LANYON-ORGILL, P. A., 1953. “The Easter Island Inscriptions.” Journal of Austronesian Studies 1.

METRAUX, A., 1940. Ethnology of Easter Island. Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Bulletin 160.

OLDEROGGE, D. A., 1947. “Parallel Texts of Some Hieroglyphic Tablets from Easter Island (from the unpublished data of B. G. Kudrjavtsev).” Sovetskya Etnografiya 4.

— — 1949. “Parallel Texts of the Easter Island Tablets.” Sbornik Museya Antropologii i Etnografii 11.

PIOTROWSKI, A., 1925. “Deux Tablettes avec les Marques Gravés de L'île de Pâques.” Revue d'Ethnographie 6.

ROUTLEDGE, Mrs. Scoresby, 1917. The Mystery of Easter Island. London, Sifton Praed.

THOMSON, W. J., 1891. “Te Pito te Henua or Easter Island.” U.S. National Museum Annual Report for 1889.

1   The text of a paper read on May 19th, 1956, in Leningrad at the All-Union Conference of Ethnologists.

2   Imbelloni 1951:107.

3   Imbelloni 1951:137. We regret that more recent articles by Imbelloni and other Latin American authors were unavailable.

4   Jaussen 1893.

5   Thomson 1886.

6   Routledge 1917.

7   Imbelloni 1951:135-136.

8   Métraux 1940:398.

9   Churchill 1912.

10   Thomson 1891. Routledge 1914. Métraux 1940.

11   Brown 1924:87-88.

12   Barthel 1955:351.

13   Métraux 1940:174, 183.

14   Métraux 1940:241.

15   Métraux 1940:280.

16   Métraux 1940:209.

17   Métraux 1940:355.

18   Métraux 1940:400.

19   Harrison 1873.

20   Piotrowski 1925.

21   Kudrjavtsev 1949. See also Olderogge 1947 and 1949.

22   Métraux 1940:402.

23   Métraux 1940:401.

24   Kudrjavtsev 1949:178-179.

25   Lanyon-Orgill 1953.

26   Olderogge 1949:223.

27   Métraux 1940:61.


Les tablettes Rongo rongo de l'Île de Pâques

Easter Island Rongo rongo