Tracing the origin of the Easter Island writing

Tracing the origin of the Easter Island writing

The wood of the Rongorongo tablet called “Échancrée” apparently dates from the 15th century. © Ferrara et al., Sci Rep, doi:1038/s41598-024-53063-7,

It remains undeciphered to this day and is shrouded in mystery: When and how did the residents of Easter Island develop their mysterious Rongorongo script? The dating of one of the preserved tablets now supports the thesis that the Rapanui people actually developed this script independently, without a European model. The wood into which the glyphs were carved comes from the fifteenth century – but the first Europeans only reached the island around 200 years later. However, the findings still cannot clearly prove the early development of the writing system, the authors explain.

The majestic Moai have made Easter Island famous: The stone colossi bear witness to an astonishing and still mysterious culture that once developed on the remote Pacific island. The Rapanui people are believed to have emerged from Polynesian sailors. It is unclear when they arrived on the extremely isolated island – possibly as late as the 12th century AD. What is clear is that the settlers ultimately created an astonishingly efficient society there, which is reflected in the island’s monumental cult sites and statues. The extent to which the culture was already in decline when the first Europeans arrived on the island in 1722 is debatable. But the complete collapse of continuity only began later: slave traders exploited the population, imported diseases killed them and missionaries came to the island. By 1877 there were apparently just over 100 Rapanui left. As a result, most of the information about traditional culture was lost.

How old is the mysterious writing?

This also affected a particularly mysterious aspect of the culture: the island’s inhabitants had apparently developed a writing system that was only reported on in 1864. They are complex strings of characters carved into pieces of wood. Many of these glyph tablets were apparently deliberately destroyed in the course of missionary work – only 27 examples are now in various collections around the world. The so-called Rongorongo characters clearly have the characteristics of a writing system. However, hardly any meaning can be assigned to the glyph sequences – the writing has not been deciphered to this day. Their origin is just as mysterious, as no writing system is known from other parts of the Polynesian culture.

The Rapanui could therefore have developed their writing independently, which is unique in human history. But this assumption has so far been contradicted by one objection: It seems possible that the islanders only developed writing after they learned the concept from European sailors. This is how she could have come up with the idea of ​​using her own symbols for a writing system, according to the explanation. If this thesis is correct, there should be no written evidence that is older than the islanders’ earliest contact with Europeans. The dating of the Rongorongo tablets is therefore of particular importance.

However, so far only samples from two panels have been subjected to radiocarbon dating. The results pointed to the 1800s as the felling date of the trees that provided the wood for the inscriptions. These results were therefore consistent with the adaptation hypothesis, but did not rule out the possibility that other specimens could be older. That’s why the research team led by Silvia Ferrara from the University of Bologna has now subjected four more Rongorongo tablets to radiocarbon dating, which are kept in a collection in Rome.

Early dating, but…

As the team reports, these analyzes showed that three specimens again showed that the trees were felled in the period after the first contact in 1722. However, this was not the case with the Rongorongo tablet called “Échancrée”: the analyzes showed one particularly reliable dating to the 15th century. This result provides an indication of the use of writing in a period before the arrival of external influences and thus of a completely independent development, say the researchers.

One might now think that the case has been resolved. But as the authors emphasize, a significant uncertainty factor remains: the dating circles the felling time of the tree that provided the wood – but it does not necessarily have to coincide with the time of the inscription. In other words: old wood could have been used. There are even possible clues for this. An earlier study of the wooden structure of the Échancrée tablet had suggested that the piece came from a tree from the stone yew family. However, these plants are not found on Easter Island. It could therefore have been driftwood that may have reached the island shore from South America. Such wood could have been used intensively on the largely deforested island.

It therefore seems unclear how old the material of the Échancrée tablet was when the glyphs were carved. Nevertheless, scientists consider it likely that the Échancrée tablet was inscribed before 1722. This is at least another indication that the mysterious glyphs could have enormous significance: “Rongorongo could represent one of the few independent inventions of writing in human history, which makes the cultural developments of the inhabitants of Easter Island seem even more complex “, the authors conclude.

Source: Ferrara et al., Scientific Reports, doi:1038/s41598-024-53063-7

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