A collection of 24 sacred wooden objects from Easter Island bear Rongorongo inscriptions, a system of glyphs that was discovered in the 19th Century and is still a mystery to historians. Numerous attempts at decyphering the proto-writing have been unsuccessful.
These pieces of wood (a lot of it driftwood) are weathered, burned and damaged and of an irregular shape. Some form a chieftain’s staff, a bird-man statuette, and two reimiro ornaments. Oral history however suggests that only a small elite was ever literate and that the tablets were sacred.
The glyphs themselves are outlines of human, animal, plant, artifact and geometric forms. Many of the human and animal figures, such as glyphs 200 and 280 , have characteristic protuberances on each side of the head, possibly representing eyes.
Authentic rongorongo texts are written in alternating directions, a system called reverse boustrophedon. From left to right and bottom of top. The reader begins at the bottom left-hand corner of a tablet, reads a line from left to right, then rotates the tablet 180 degrees to continue on the next line.
Oral tradition indicates that the wood was carved with small shark’s teeth and flakes of obsidian. This method is still used throughout Polynesia.
Other tablets appear to have been cut with a steel blade, often rather crudely. Although steel knives were available after the arrival of the Spanish, this does cast suspicion on the authenticity of these tablets.
The glyphs are stylized human, animal, vegetable and geometric shapes, and often form compounds. Heads often have characteristic projections on the sides which may be eyes (as on the sea turtle glyph but which often resemble ears. Birds are common; many resemble the frigatebird which was associated with the supreme god Makemake. Other glyphs look like fish or arthropods. A few, but only a few, are similar to petroglyphs found throughout the island.
Oral tradition holds that either Hotu Matu‘a or Tu‘u ko Iho, the legendary founder(s) of Rapa Nui, brought 67 tablets from their homeland. The same founder is also credited with bringing indigenous plants such as the toromiro. However, there is no homeland likely to have had a tradition of writing in Polynesia or even in South America. Thus rongorongo appears to have been an internal development. Given that few if any of the Rapanui people remaining on the island in the 1870s could read the glyphs, it is likely that only a small minority were ever literate. Indeed, early visitors were told that literacy was a privilege of the ruling families and priests who were all kidnapped in the Peruvian slaving raids or died soon afterwards in the resulting epidemics.
Little direct dating has been done. The start of forest-clearing for agriculture, and thus presumably colonization, has been dated to circa 1200, implying a date for the invention of rongorongo no earlier than the 13th century.