The mysterious Rongorongo writing of Easter Island

The mysterious Rongorongo writing of Easter Island


During the 19 th Century, ancient artifacts containing a set of etched symbols were discovered on the world-renowned Easter Island, a small remote island located a few thousand miles west of South America, and famous for the hundreds of giant monolithic anthropomorphic statues called moai. The intricate designs appear to be glyphs, or a form of writing, but the meaning of the glyphs has never been deciphered. Some believe that decoding the mysterious writing could offer answers into what caused the collapse of the ancient Easter Island civilization.

The famous moai of Easter Island

The famous moai of Easter Island (BigStockPhoto)

The Rongorongo writing was first discovered by Eugène Eyraud, a lay friar of the Roman Catholic Church, who went to Easter Island as a missionary on January 2, 1864. In an account of his visit, he wrote of his discovery of twenty-six wooden tablets containing the unusual inscriptions:

“In every hut one finds wooden tablets or sticks covered in several sorts of hieroglyphic characters: They are depictions of animals unknown on the island, which the natives draw with sharp stones. Each figure has its own name; but the scant attention they pay to these tablets leads me to think that these characters, remnants of some primitive writing, are now for them a habitual practice which they keep without seeking its meaning.”

A mid-section of the Santiago Staff with Rongorongo script

A mid-section of the Santiago Staff with Rongorongo script. ( Wikipedia)

The name Rongorongo comes from the Rapa Nui language, which is the native language of Easter Island, and means "to recite, to declaim, to chant out.” The irregularly shaped wooden tablets were weathered, burned, or otherwise damaged when they were found. The glyphs were also found on a chieftain's staff, a bird-man statuette, and two reimiro ornaments. The glyphs are written in-between lines that run across the tablets. Some tablets are “fluted” with the inscriptions falling within the channels created by the fluting.  The Rongorongo images are shaped like humans, animals, plants, and geometric forms. Every symbol that contains a head is oriented with the head facing up, and either facing forward, or profiling to the right. Each symbol is approximately 1 centimeter high. The orientation of the writing is read from left to right, bottom to top. This is known as reverse boustrophedon. According to oral tradition, the tools used to make the carvings were obsidian flakes or small shark teeth.

The Rongorongo characters

The Rongorongo characters were typically written between lines that run across the tablet. ( Wikipedia)

The age of the tablets is unknown, as very little direct dating has been done, but they are believed to have originated around the 13 th Century, around the same time as forest clearing.  However, this is merely speculative as the inhabitants of Easter Island may have felled a small number of trees for the specific purpose of creating the wooden tablets.  One glyph appears to resemble a palm tree, and is thought to be the Easter Island palm, which disappeared from the island’s pollen record in 1650, suggesting the script must be at least that old.

Side a of Rongorongo Tablet

Side a of Rongorongo Tablet, the Stephen-Chauvet fragment. ( Wikipedia)

Deciphering the glyphs has proven difficult. Assuming that Rongorongo is writing, there are three barriers that make it difficult to decipher: the limited number of texts, the lack of illustrations and other contexts with which to understand them, and poor attestation of the Old Rapanui language, which is likely to be the language reflected in the tablets. Some believe that the Rongorongo is not true writing, but proto-writing, which is a set of symbols that convey information without containing any truly linguistic content. According to the Atlas of Language, the Rongorongo “was probably used as a memory aid or for decorative purposes, not for recording the Rapanui language of the islanders.”

While it remains unclear exactly what the Rongorongo is intended to convey, the discovery and inspection of the tablets remain an important key to understanding the past civilizations of Easter Island. The intricately inscribed, neatly lined images indicate that the ancient island civilization had a message to convey, whether it was a casual display for decorative purposes, or to pass messages and stories forward from generation to generation. Perhaps deciphering the codes will someday lead to answers about the collapse of the island civilization, but for now, the tablets remain a mysterious symbol from the past.

Featured image: Rongorongo Tablet. Replica at the Englert Museum. ( Flickr)


Rongorongo – Wikipedia. Available from:

Rongorongo – Omniglot. Available from:

10 of the World’s Biggest Unsolved Mysteries – Mother Nature Network. Available from:

Rongorongo – Princeton. Available from:

By M R Reese


rbflooringinstall's picture

I wonder if there is anything in Rongorongo that resembles any of the moai?

Peace and Love,


Tsurugi's picture

A few years ago I developed my own interpretation of the whole Easter Island enigma. I don't think there was an "Easter Island civilization" that collapsed.

To put it simply, I think Easter Island was mostly a "pit stop" ...a sort of gas station / motel six / convenience store, set up by the civilization of the "Ancient Sea Kings" (as Charles Hapgood called them).

Situated, as it is, practically halfway from everywhere in the middle of the Pacific, it would have made an excellent way-station for ancient mariners: a place to take a few days rest, restock some provisions, make repairs, etc.

Just like a modern gas station, there would be a "staff" of employees or caretakers, living on the island...maybe they worked shifts of seasons? Possibly there were some that spent most of their lives on the island.

Then, at some point....the ships stopped coming.

The staff of the way-station waited, and wondered...later, their children wondered, but probably didn't do much waiting....later still, their children's children did no waiting, but perhaps they did occasionally look at the single row of Grandfather statues that face outward toward the sea, and wonder...what are they looking for?

Tsurugi's picture

....I should also add, there are some interesting observable facts with regard to Moai of Easter Island.

Supposedly, according to orthodox history, there was a sort of "Moai Craze" on Easter Island in the 15th century. The islanders went absolutely bonkers making giant stone statues and dragging them all over the island, and in the process, destroyed the island's ecosystem by chopping down all the trees for use as rollers and such.

As is stated in the article, there is supporting evidence(pollen remnants, etc.) for a drastic change of ecosystem on the island in the 1600s. Everything else in the story is guesswork and assumption.

Still, it could be true. But I don't think so. Consider that if we take the orthodox history as true, that means the Moai were put in place roughly a century before the first Europeans showed up. We have many detailed sketches and paintings of Easter Island and its Moai from those first explorers, and we have grainy black and white photos from those who followed after them.
Anyone today looking at those old images will instantly recognize Easter Island with its Moai statues.

In fact, those old images show that the Moai are pretty much exactly the same as we see them today...meaning, most of them are buried up to their chins, so that roughly two thirds of their height is below the surface. This means anywhere from 20 to 60 feet of soil and sediment has accumulated around the buried Moai since they were put in place...and it was apparently a slow, gradual accumulation rather than a fast, catastrophic one, because the Moai didn't get knocked over by massive mudslides...instead, they developed a lean, or tilt, as the sediment slowly accumulated.

So, if the orthodox story is correct, we are to believe that in the single century after the Moai were constructed and before the Europeans showed up, everything happened to make the Moai look like we see them today...half buried, drastically tilted, etc....but in the 300-400 years since, nothing has changed...?

IMO, this indicates that the Moai are possibly a lot older than we've been told. I speculate they are contemporary with such things as Gobekli Tepe and Gunung Padang(sp?), etc.

DeAegean's picture

Maybe they were just keeping track of the different plants and animals like an encyclopedia.. After all, it's hard to remember everything without Google

Has anybody noticed the similarities with Gauguin's painting "The Ancestors of Tehamana" and the Rongorongo characters?


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