Wednesday, 21 May 2014
Nuts and Bolts: Rongorongo
The story of Rongorongo is a sad and mysterious one.
Rongorongo is...well, we aren't sure what it is. But this is what it looks like:
Rongorongo looks as if it's some sort of writing, but it might instead be proto-writing. That is, it might be a sort of memory-aid that you can't understand unless someone else has explained the secret.
The secret to Rongorongo has, sadly, been completely lost.
There are just over twenty rongorongo inscriptions left in the world, nearly all carved on wood with a shark's tooth or a flake of obsidian. The inscriptions all in museums, and none of them is still at home on Easter Island.
Easter Island stories say that only a few people could ever read rongorongo, and that the writing was holy.
What else do we know about rongorongo? It's written in alternating directions, with every other line upside down, a system called reverse boustrophedon.
(As you can see, the shapes that look like people have very odd ears. I wonder why?)
No visitors to the island took any notice of rongorongo until the second half of the 1800s, when most of the inscriptions had been destroyed (wood was scarce, and probably most of the bits with rongorongo inscriptions were used for wrapping fishing line round) and no one at all could read them.
There's a theory that rongorongo was invented after the people of Easter Island were made to sign a treaty in 1770 giving their island to Spain. This event may have given the islanders the idea of writing, but we don't know for sure. The answers to all our questions are lost because all the people who could read rongorongo were taken away from the island and soon died of disease.
So there we are. A mystery.
And a great loss and sadness.
Word To Use Today: rongorongo. I can't honestly see this word being of much use in everyday life, but it's still a good word. In the Rapanui language of Easter Island rongorongo means to recite, to declaim, to chant out. The original name of the script is said to have been kohau motu mo rongorongo, lines incised for chanting out.