Rongorongo scripture, or kohau rongo rongo as the natives call it, is a scripture system consisting of glyphs carved on wood or tablets, which to this day have yet to be deciphered. The most common translation of the term kohau is “wood used for making the hull of the canoe” and rongo rongo means “the great message” or “great study”, for which the kohau rongo rongo has been translated to “recitation wood’ or “narrator staffs”.
According to oral tradition, the first king to arrive on Easter Island, ariki Hotu Matu’a, had 67 tablets that corresponded with the 67 Maori wisdoms, such as knowing how to sail and knowing astronomy; however, no other writing of this kind has been found anywhere in Polynesia. Other researchers think that the Rongorongo scripture was invented after the arrival of the Spaniards in 1770, since they asked the ariki to sign the island assignment contract. This being the first contact the Rapa Nui had with western scripture.
Beyond the posed theories about its origin, it is most likely that the meaning behind the Rongorongo scripture will remain a mystery for a very long time. Unfortunately, there are only 27 original pieces with Rongo Rongo inscriptions, and they are scattered in museums all over the world. No original piece remains in Easter Island. This scarcity and dispersion, as well as the lack of knowledge about the ancient Rapa Nui language, makes it almost impossible to find a pattern that will decipher them.
The symbols and glyphs were carved using shark teeth or obsidian flakes mainly in toromiro or Oceania rosewood wood, on both sides and without spaces or separations between symbols. They seem to represent anthropomorphic beings in different positions, fantastic creatures that resemble birds, aquatic animals or plants, celestial beings, small hooks or geometric figures. Because of this scripture, it is believed that this is a symbolic scripture rather than a phonetic one.
The scripture system used in the Rongo Rongo tablets is known as inversed boustrophedon, which means that you write a line in one direction and the next in the opposite direction turned around. To read the tablet you need to turn it over as you read. For example, in the tablet in the image, the odd lines are read the normal way, from left to right, and the even lines are read by turning the tablet 180º.
One of the first missionaries to arrive on the island, the French monk Eugenio Eyraud, wrote in a report to one of his superiors of the Sacred Hearts: “Wooden tablets or canes covered in hieroglyphics are found in every hut. They are animal figures unbeknownst in the island that the natives draw with Sharp stones. Each figure has a name. Plus, the little attention they pay to these tablets makes me think that these characters, remains of a primitive language, are to them something to preserve rather than gather meaning from.”
Unfortunately, the Rongo Rongo scripture tablets that were sold or interchanged between the Europeans and the islanders were burned by the missionaries, who considered them satanic, thought they caused strange mental and spiritual states, and that they carried spiritual messages that contravened their work of evangelization.