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Easter Island

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Carolyn Silver
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« Reply #30 on: March 03, 2007, 02:59:21 am »

The writing was inscribed on the rongorongo boards in neat rows a centimetre high. Alternate lines are written upside down, with the end of one line running into the beginning of the next – a system known as boustrophedon (‘as the ox ploughs’). This means that, starting from the bottom lefthand corner of a tablet, the writing proceeds from left to right but at the end of each line the tablet has to be turned round.

The precise nature of the rongorongo script is uncertain. The prevailing view today is that

the motifs represent a rudimentary phonetic writing system, in which picture symbols were used to express ideas as well as objects. In other words, the individual glyphs do not represent an alphabet or even syllables, as in other scripts, but are ‘cue cards’ for whole words or ideas, plus a means of keeping count, like rosary beads. Each sign was a peg on which to hang a large amount of text committed to memory.1

According to legend, Hoto Matua brought 67 rongorongo tablets with him containing traditions, genealogical tables, and other records of the past, and he was accompanied by learned men who knew the art of writing and reciting the inscriptions. Some researchers have argued that the rongorongo script is not ancient but was invented by the islanders after the Spanish visit in 1770, when a written proclamation of annexation was offered to the chiefs and priests for them to sign. Some of the symbols used by the natives in signing the proclamation resembled the rongorongo hieroglyphs. We’re supposed to believe that the rest of the script was invented later! It’s possible that all the existing rongorongo tablets are no more than a few hundred years old; one, for instance, consists of a European oar. But the inscriptions could have been copied from earlier specimens.

The last truly literate islanders died either as a result of the 1862 slave raid or the subsequent smallpox epidemic. Natives who later claimed to be able to read Rongorongo appeared to be either reciting memorized texts or merely describing the figures rather than actually reading them, and sometimes gave different renderings of the same text. The script has still not been deciphered, despite some exaggerated claims to have done so. In 1995, for example, Steven Fischer announced that most of the tablets were religious chants taking the form: god A copulated with goddess B begetting a particular animal, plant, or natural phenomenon. However, his claims to have deciphered the script have been roundly attacked by other researchers.2

Thor Heyerdahl argued that Rongorongo was related to several South American scripts. He mentioned the pictographic writing of the Cuna Indians of Panama and northwest Colombia, who recorded songs by painting on wooden tablets. Some of the symbols are identical with those of Easter Island, and the script was written in boustrophedon style. The writing systems found among early historic (post-Columbian) Aymara and Quechua tribes of the Lake Titicaca area also used boustrophedon. Even the Incas reportedly had a writing system: their history was recorded on ‘boards’, which were passed down through the generations of rulers and guarded by learned men.3 The Spaniards found some stored in the Temple of the Sun and burned them.

Conventional researchers believe that the rongorongo script is Polynesian, with its signs reflecting the local environment and culture. They acknowledge that boustrophedon was used in Peru but say that there is no affinity between the signs used in the two places, though there might have been some influence in either direction. Some see far more significant similarities between certain rongorongo motifs and designs employed in the Solomon Islands in Melanesia, though a direct migration from there to Easter Island is no longer considered tenable. Rongorongo specialist Thomas Barthel speculated that the script originated on the Polynesian islands of Huahine or Raiatea and he believed it came to Rapa Nui with Hotu Matua.

Putting modern preconceptions aside, Rongorongo may reflect a variety of influences. In the 1930s Guillaume de Hevesy identified similarities between the rongorongo signs and 130 signs used in the at least 4500-year-old script found in the towns of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa in the Indus Valley. The orthodox view is that any similarities have been exaggerated and are purely coincidental.4 The Indus Valley script was usually written from right to left, but there are a few early cases of boustrophedon. (Some Etruscan and Hittite texts are also written in boustrophedon style, as are some Greek ones from about the 6th century BC.)

The seals used in the Indus Valley were made of soapstone. It is noteworthy that one Easter Island legend says: ‘The first race invented the Rongo-Rongo writing: they wrote it on stone. Of the four parts of the world that were at one time inhabited by the first race, it is only in Asia that this writing still exists.’5 Interestingly, Mohenjo Daro and Easter Island lie almost exactly 180° apart: the former is situated at 27°23'N and about 69°E and the latter at 27°08'S and 109°23'W.


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