Volume 48 1939 > Volume 48, No. 189 > The Easter Island script and the Middle-Indus seals, p 60-69
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In the September 1938 number of our Journal, page 138 and on, was published a review of an article on the above subject in Anthropos, 1938, pages 218-239, by M. Métraux. As Sr. J. Imbelloni of the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturelles was referred to in the review, a copy was sent to him, in consequence of which a letter on the subject has been received from him, enclosing copy of a letter from Mr. G. R. Hunter to M. de Hevesy traversing the findings of M. Métraux, together with an article by himself dealing with those findings. As the gist of the letter from Mr. Hunter is included in the article, it has been thought necessary to publish here only the article, such publication seeming due not only to M. de Hevesy but also to M. Métraux.

By the same mail which brought Sr. Imbelloni's letter I received also a letter from the Honorary Secretary of the Sind Historical Society, which, as it bears on the subject under consideration, it has been thought well to include following Sr. Imbelloni's article. The question asked in this letter has been answered, definitely though of necessity unsatisfactorily.

The review in the September number referred to concludes with the words: “So closes, or opens, another chapter on the mystery of the Easter island tablets”; the indications are for an opening; not a closing.


RENEWED interest is being taken today in questions connected with the discovery by Sir John Marshall, shortly before 1928, of mysterious inscriptions, belonging to the late stone or early bronze period, in the ruins of - 61 Mohengio, Daro, and Harappa, the three most remote cities of the middle Indus.

This discovery, and still more the other discovery that followed it in 1932, when Guillaume de Hevesy connected the script of these inscriptions with that of the mysterious tablets of Easter island—or as I prefer to call it by its native name, Rapanui—seemed so important in European scientific circles that the idea of an expedition to the island was mooted immediately, and very soon realized. The members were the archaeologist H. Lavachery, the ethnologist A. Métraux, and the physician I. Drapkin. Louis Watelin, originally chosen as leader of the expedition, unfortunately died on the voyage, in 1934, in Chilian waters.

I need not here repeat what I have stated on various occasions about this discovery and the resulting controversies among ethnologists and epigraphers, starting from the 4th October, 1933, when I submitted this question to the Historical Committee. As my readers will easily remember, especially those who saw the large mural placards on which I gave large-scale reproductions of the series of inscriptions correlated by C. de Hevesy, I described in my lectures at Buenos Aires and Santiago the effect of the first sight of these discoveries on the South American public.

The publications referred to discuss practically all the little we know about the famous “singing” or “rhythmic recitations” of the ancient hierophants of Rapanui during the annual festivals of the village of Anakena; about the genealogies of the island kings or ariki, which they were shown reading with the tablet in hand; about the school of wood-engravers or inscription-writers that formerly flourished on the north coast of Rapanui, and about many other topics which, today as yesterday, would furnish material for an interesting article.

But my present purpose is to let my old friends know whether there is anything new to be said about the Proto-Hindu or Easter island inscriptions.

In the Punjab the investigations show a slow but steady progress, in the sense that new collections of inscribed seals and amulets, mostly steatite, have been added to the many thousands already known. The epigrapher cannot in - 62 practice keep pace with the excavator, because years elapse between the discovery of the material and the publication of the symbols.

Thus for instance the book of Sir John Marshall dated 1931 publishes only the seals known up to 1927, and Hunter's list issued in 1932 only those known up to April, 1931. The latter is the latest repository and is to be regarded as a supplement to Hunter's own book which bears the date 1934, although it was actually completed in 1929 and held up for five years awaiting the imprimatur of the Archaelogical Department of the Government of India. Persons not aware of this chronological anomaly, and starting with the fixed idea that Hevesy's notion was an absurdity, a purely subjective conviction, somewhat hastily accused Hevesy of reproducing symbols not to be found in Hunter's original plates. It has now been clearly established by Baron Heine-Geldern, as well as by Professor G. R. Hunter himself, that these critics based their conjectures on the 1934 book, without knowing that that collection is incomplete and out of date, and that there should be included in it the inscriptions of the article by Hunter published by the Asiatic Society of London in 1932.

Now as regards the Indus inscriptions. Here the mystery remains impenetrable. In know of only one attempted interpretation, and that is unscientific, and better described as a “fervent improvisation.” Father H. Heras, S.J. has just published in the Journal of the University of Bombay a long article dedicated to the “Religion of Mohenjo Daro through its Inscriptions,” in which he offers an explanation of several texts without for the time being revealing the basis or methods used in deciphering. The little it is possible to discover about these methods from the article itself leaves us very sceptical. In support of the contention that these inscriptions are about things divine, Father Heras starts from the assumption that, of figures reproduced by him,

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the first, in as much as it has arms and legs detached from the torso in a dynamic attitude, signifies “man”; the second, in which the limbs are dropped and without vital force, signifies “superior being, god”; the third, with four arms, signifies “supreme being”; the fourth, “goddess mother”; the fifth, “hermaphrodite goddess,” etc. Here is an example of his translations: according to Heras the following inscription


means: “The trees of the united canalized region of the Kavals (dedicated) to all the gods, whence came Minas, who was in the house.” It is not so much the queerness of the sentence that is noteworthy as the crudely ideographic intuition of the interpretation. There is another yet more absurd:


which is supposed to mean “Enmai is to the fish and to the acacia as 8 is to 2,” a mathematical formula in which Heras recognizes an appellative of Siva “of the eight bodies.”

These attempts of Father Heras are comparable to those of another learned jesuit, Father Anastasius Kircher, who during the Renaissance period made guesses at the Egyptian hieroglyphs which have since been satisfactorily deciphered.

On the Pacific side also there is nothing new to report. The tablets of Rapanui remain undeciphered; some people even refuse to admit that they represent a script. That is the gist of the arguments put forward by Dr. Alfred Métraux in an article published in the review Anthropos, of which he has just sent me a separate copy from Honolulu, with a very friendly dedication. Interesting summaries of the same article have recently appeared at Buenos Aires.

The arguments of Dr. Métraux comprise three distinct aspects. First, the statement that most of the analogies - 64 exist only in Hevesy's reproductions, whereas they disappear when compared with those of the original series, “this gentleman, moved by his enthusiasm, having slightly modified the original symbols, and accentuated similitudes which otherwise might perhaps never have suggested themselves.” Secondly, the statement that the tablets of Rapanui do not contain a script, but a certain number of “sacred symbols representing gods of the island and equally sacred things.” Thirdly, the statement that the civilization of Rapanui, which became extinct in the 19th century, can have no connection historically with that of the Punjab that flourished in 3,000 B.C. and is separated from it by 20,000 kilometres of ocean.

I do not propose here to discuss fully these three central propositions of Dr. Métraux. I shall only point out that they are open to objection both from an internal and from an external point of view, i.e., in respect of their methods of proof, and in respect of the present state of the sciences of epigraphy, history, and ethnology.

But there is a point in which a friendly intervention may be helpful both to Dr. Métraux and to M. de Hevesy, both of them friends of mine of long standing. Nor am I now thinking of the recognition of analogies in the two graphic systems. Every one has the right to refuse that; I partly did so myself before 1935. It is something more serious than that.

In disputes of this kind one often says more than one means. Dr. Métraux devotes many paragraphs of both his articles to showing that Hevesy has altered some symbols and imagined others non-existent in Hunter's plates, also omitting to give precise references to those plates “by what may have been a prudent lapse of memory.” I am sure that Dr. Métraux never meant to bring an accusation of falsification, only to point out the scientific blindness that results from the effort to prove a preconceived theory.

I regret having to say that accusers as well as accused can be struck with this brand of critical blindness. In short, in order to vindicate the moral and scientific integrity of Guillaume de Hevesy I feel obliged to publish the following facts:

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1. In a manuscript letter signed by Professor Hunter and addressed to M. de Hevesy, of which I possess a photographic copy, he says that, having carefully re-examined the list of symbols reproduced by the latter, “I have verified that in every case in which you have taken the symbols of my work, you have reproduced them with scrupulous and indeed remarkable exactitude.” (Italic words are in English in the original.)

2. In the same letter Professor Hunter, who is at present at Ngapura, in India, remarks that Dr. Métraux has not taken the trouble to read the work from which the symbols were taken, i.e., his article in the Journal of the Asiatic Society, 1932, except for a foot-note to Anthropos, p. 222. In that foot-note he shows that he was under the misapprehension that the book of 1934 contained everything discovered up to that date.

3. The well-known sinologist Baron Heine-Geldern has written from New York a postscript of several pages to his article in the same review (Anthropos), in which the chief accusations of Dr. Métraux are shown to be unfounded. The clear and careful analysis of Heine-Geldern constitutes not only a complete vindication of Guillaume de Hevesy, but also a proof of correlation between the two scripts. As regards the former point, the original unpublished MS. of Hevesy as read before the Paris Academy by Professor Pelliot is accompanied by full references to sources. Heine-Geldern, who has seen it, declares in so many words: “I can testify that in this MS. all the references to the sources from which Hevesy drew the Indus symbols and the Easter island symbols are given by him with scrupulous care.”

After giving this strictly objective statement of the facts, I have a wish to add. I hope that the wish of the distinguished Viennese sinologist may soon be fulfilled, when he says: “I have no doubt that Dr. Métraux, after a more careful examination of the sources, will himself be the first to admit that his accusation are unjust, and spontaneously make the public apology to which M. de Hevesy is fully entitled.”

One can find excuses for this unfortunate business in the fervour with which we all pursue the investigation of - 66 scientific novelties. I am sorry it has occupied so much of my space that I cannot now, with the modesty and caution necessary to the preservation of one's clarity of vision, formulate my own standpoint in regard to the questions raised by this article, that is to say: the transformation of the human figure into a bird profile, which is typical of the Easter Islanders; the proof that the tablets of Rapanui can contain nothing other than a script; the strong probability that that script cannot be dissociated from the canons of the scripts of antiquity; the illustration of the essential characteristics of boustrophedonic writing; and the inadequacy, in ethnological questions, of simplified arguments resting on mechanical “space and time” considerations.

On some other occasion I may tackle these suggestive themes in conjunction with my readers, bearing in mind the misleading character of an absolute denial of ancient Melanesian populations whether in Easter island or in the rest of Polynesia.


Marston Road, Karachi, India, 12th December, 1938.

You may be aware that the script on tablets found at Easter island is very similar to the script on seals found at Mohenjo Daro in Sind, India. I enclose two illustrations for comparison.

In vol. 1, 1892, of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, Dr. A. Carrol has written an article on Easter island inscriptions, and on page 236 of that article he writes: “When I am printing the grammars and vocabularies, I will have each of the characters, and the separate parts of these characters, clearly shown, with the equivalent or value of each in the language in which it was intended to be written and read, and also with its equivalent or interpretation in English.”

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Will you please let me know if the Doctor has printed such grammar and vocabularies, and if they are available. Possibly they must have been printed in the Journal of your Society … If you can kindly give me all particulars on this point, viz. the script of tablets of the Easter island, I shall be really grateful.

I am yours truly,

Hon. Secretary and Treasurer Sind Historical Society.

“All the particulars”—alas! no more could be given him than what had appeared in the Journal he evidently has seen. The accompanying are the two pages of signs sent by him.—Lever le rideau.

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FIG. 1.
Signs of Indus writing compared with those of Easter island: in each of the four rows, the signs of the Indus are on the left, those of Easter island on the right.
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FIG. 2.
Signs of Indus writing compared with those of Easter island: in each of the four rows, the signs of the Indus are on the left, those of Easter island on the right.