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 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.”
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 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.
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.
If only the Moai statue in the movie, Night at the Museum, had said more than just calling Ben Stiller “Dum dum” perhaps a long lost language could finally have been deciphered. The “Rongorongo” glyphs of Easter Island (indigenously known as Rapa Nui) have remained unsolved for hundreds of years.
Between the years of 300 AD-1200 AD, the Polynesian people migrated and established what is now known as Easter Island (Martin). After an originally successful civilization, the Polynesians overpopulated and overused their resources which resulted in an eventual population decline. In 1722, European explorers further cut into their population by bringing diseases, also giving the island its more popular name “Easter Island”(Martin). Nobody is exactly sure when the Rongorongo texts were written, but historians have determined that the language predates the arrival of the Europeans in the 1700s (Martin).
The major discovery of the Rongorongo glyphs occurred in 1868 almost accidentally. The Bishop of Tahiti was given a strange gift of one of these texts (Martin). The text consisted of hieroglyphic writing carved on a small wooden board. However, he was unable to find anyone on Easter Island who understood the language and could decipher the text due to the fact so many of the indigenous people had been lost to disease and slavery.
Although the Rongorongo texts have never been interpreted, cryptographers and historians have determined certain characteristics of the hieroglyphics. The texts were primarily written as historical accounts of the Polynesian people and were not intended to be secret texts. Rather, they chronicled all the historical events of their civilization. At first, the texts were written on paper created from banana leaves; however, after the leaves started to rot, the King had the elite class rewrite the historical texts onto toromiro wood tablets (Martin).
The major impediment to translating the Rongorongo texts is the sheer number of glyphs. The texts contain over one hundred twenty different basic glyphs with almost five hundred other variations on these glyphs (Stollznow). The glyphs include human and animal forms along with geometric shapes. The animals include many birds while the shapes often represent common items the Polynesian people used on Rapa Nui. Since it is a distinctive language and not a text representing other letters, there is not a special key for decoding it.
It is thought that Rongorongo glyphs may represent idiosyncratic mnemonic devices meant to remind the reader of something that is representative of something else, such as using a “knot” symbol used to represent marriage (Martin). This differs from almost all written forms of languages today that have characters representing only sounds or only letters.
Rongorongo texts contain a mixture of symbols and a phonetic alphabet written in a unique style known as reverse boustrophedon (Ager). The text begins in the lower left corner and is read left-to-right. Then the text must be turned one hundred and eighty degrees to read the next line left-to-right, and the process is repeated with each line.
Many people have tried to decipher the Rongorongo hieroglyphics over the last century and a half but have failed to unlock the mystery of this unique language. Although Rongorongo was not created to hide the meaning of the writer, it has been highly successful in keeping its secrets. If someone is able to finally interpret this language, they could use it to send secret messages and would have an enormous advantage over the cryptanalysts.
For example, during World War II, the United States used the Navajo code talkers to help send messages to American troops overseas (Singh-Chapter 5). Even when the enemy intercepted these messages, they were unable to decipher them because the Navajo language, only spoken and not written, was such an obscure language with no written history. The Navajo code talkers illustrate to us what happens when people use an obscure language with no key to send encoded messages. The United States military was able to expediently send messages to the U.S. army without any worries of cryptanalysts trying to intercept the message.
The Navajo Code is the only wartime code/cipher that was never deciphered by the enemy because our military went to extremes to make sure that a code talker never fell into enemy hands. This could allow the enemy to torture the code talker into giving away some of the secrets of the code allowing a crib to be developed. Even a few words could help the enemy decipher a code. For example, cryptographers were able to use the encrypted annual birthday messages sent to Hitler to decipher parts of the German code because the meaning of the messages was so obvious.
The Future of Cryptography?
If someone was able to use the Rongorongo hieroglyphic language or create a different language that only the sender and receiver know, then it wouldn’t matter if someone intercepted the message because it would be impossible to decipher the message. The interceptor would not be able to decipher the text because there is no key involved in solving the message and no crib could be developed. Using an entirely different language that only the sender and the receiver understand could be groundbreaking because the methods used to decipher a code or cipher would not apply. The only way to break the code would be by knowing the language.
For example, imagine how much more difficult it would have been for the British cryptanalysts in their quest to solve the Enigma machine during World War II if they had not known the German language at all. It would be impossible. This is what makes the Rongorongo texts nearly indecipherable.
For future military actions, many countries should consider using this tactic for sending secret messages. Although it would be time consuming at first to learn an entirely new language that does not relate to any current languages, the result would be worth the difficulties because it would be more efficient in sending quick messages with no concern of interceptors. A new breed of “code talkers” could be used to be dedicated to learning and using the code. The Rongorongo hieroglyphics may show us the next step in cryptography. This could be a check mate for the cryptanalysts because this new innovation in cryptography could put cryptographers ahead in the race for keeping secret messages safe.
This post is part of a series of essays on the history of cryptography produced by students at Vanderbilt University in honor of the release of The Imitation Game, a major motion picture about the life of British codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing. The students wrote these essays for an assignment in a first-year writing seminar taught by mathematics instructor Derek Bruff. For more information on the cryptography seminar, see the course blog. And for more information on The Imitation Game, which opens in the US on November 28, 2014, see thefilm’s website.