Volume 54 1945 > Volume 54, No. 1 > The mystery of the Easter Island script, by Werner Wolff, p 1-38
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IN 1864 the French missionary Eyraud discovered in a subterranean shelter on Easter island wooden tablets with a strange script. Natives called these tablets kohau rongorongo, 1 which was generally translated: “singing wood”, but A. Metraux 2 and H. Lavachery 3 translated it: “wood with hymns for recitation”. R. V. Heine Geldern 4 object to the translation “wood” and would rather say hibiscus, which is a certain tree on Easter island. Altogether, there were found on Easter island twenty-six objects bearing hieroglyphics: twenty-one wooden tablets and five figures and sticks; but as Metraux objects to the authenticity of three objects, there are only twenty-three at our disposal.

Tradition says the the first king, Hoatu-matua, brought with him sixty-seven wooden tablets. Later on, the number of tablets is supposed to have been much larger, still around the middle of the 19th century. From one of the last chiefs, Ngaara, it is told that he had several hundreds. The art of writing was extinguished when the Peruvian slave-raiders carried off all professionals of writing. The disappearance of the old wooden tablets is probably due to their sacred character, because the natives hid them from the European immigrants, and, what seems to be much more serious, the missionaries seem to have considered these ceremonial documents as idolatrous objects against which they proceeded with their usual inquisitorial attitude. The natives repeatedly asserted that the missionaries had prohibited them from reading the tablets, and even had induced them to burn these objects as devil's work. The Swede De Greno, who arrived about 1870 at Easter island as a ship-wreck, was told, 5

“that soon after the Catholic Mission was established on the Island, the missionaries persuaded many of the people to consume by fire all the blocks (tablets) in their possession, telling them that they were but heathen records and that the possession of them would have a tendency to attach them to their heathenism and prevent their thorough conversion to the new religion and the consequent saving of their souls”.

Also Mrs. Routledge, the most thorough explorer of Easter island, was told by a native that he possessed a great number of tablets, all of which he had thrown away on the advice of the missionaries, and after-

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wards another man had built a boat of them. Even Brother Eyraud, the discoverer of the tablets, gave them so little attention that he did not even mention their existence to his missionary comrades. But not all of the missionaries had such an iconoclastic attitude, and to some of them we are indebted for transmitting us very important observations.

The wooden tablets varied greatly in size. The biggest measured six feet in length. 6 The material was, as Philippi remarks, 7 wood from the toromiro 8 tree, which is a kind of mimosa. But other tablets show different kinds of wood, such as wood from Podocarpus latifolia, wood of laurel, myrtle, and of ash. These woods, partly non-existent on Easter island, must have been either driftwood or imported. Natives tell that the original glyphs, brought to them by the first immigrants, had been written on paper made from the banana plant; but later on, for the better preservation of the documents, they were written on wood. According to Eyraud 9 and Geiseler 10 the glyphs have been engraved with a piece of obsidian; but Routledge 11 and Metraux 12 mention catfish teeth as instruments for engraving 13

  • 1-4—Musée Missionaire des Peres des Sacrés Coeurs de Picpus, Braine le Comte, Belgium.
  • 5—Formerly in the University Library of Loewen, Holland; burnt in 1914 but photographs are preserved.
  • 6—Collection Stephan Chauvet, Paris.
  • 7, 8—Museum in Leningrad.
  • 9—British Museum, London.
  • 10—Museum fuer Voelkerkunde, Berlin.
  • 11, 12—Museum fuer Voelkerkunde, Wien.
  • 13. 14—U.S. National Museum, Washington, D.C.
  • 15, 16—Museum in Santiago de Chile.
  • 17—Museum of the University Concepcion, Ohile.
  • 18—Bishop Museum, Honolulu (one doubtful).
  • 22—A figure, in the American Museum of Natural History, New York, N.Y.
  • 23, 24—Two breast ornaments, in the British Museum. London (one doubtful).
  • 25—Breast ornament, in Australian Museum (doubtful).
  • 26—Staff, in the Museum in Santiago de Chile.

The professionals in the art of writing were called rongorongo men. W. Churchill 14 translates rongo with “news, message”. In their houses, which were set apart, the rongorongo men practised their art of writing. A finished tablet was wrapped in reeds and hung up in a room of the house. The rongorongo men came together every year at a place called Anakena. According to the reports obtained by Mrs. Routledge, 15 there were several hundreds, coining from all districts of the island. The place of the gathering, near the principal burial-ground called ahu 16 was surrounded with sticks bearing feathers on their tops. The rongorongo men, wearing feather hats, sat in rows - 3 facing the chief, who was called ariki 17 and sat on tablets piled up to form a seat, at the side of his son. The rongorongo men brought with them one or two tablets. They read from the places where they stood. If a young man made mistakes, he was corrected, but if an old man failed, a young but learned boy would take the man by the ear, saying, “are you not ashamed, to be taken out by a child?” After the reading the chief addressed the readers and gave each of them a chicken.


Unfortunately, there is no information at all about the subject of the reading, but the ceremonial character of the assembly seems to hint at its religious significance. The feathers on the sticks surrounding the place of .the gathering, the feather hats of the rongorongo men and the king's gift of a bird to each reader indicates a relationship to the bird ceremony which is a main ceremony on Easter island, related to spring, birth, and to the arrival of the ancestors. The proximity of the principal ahu suggests furthermore the symbolism of death and rebirth, which is involved in the bird-ceremony. Concerning the name of the tablets, kohau rongorongo, it is interesting that, according to Churchill, 18 kohau also means “shaft of a lance”, and kohu “shadow, shade, obscurity”. These ideas might hint at a connection between the tablets and the concept of death. But a stronger hint of this connection is given by a report of Routledge, where she, reporting the death ceremonies, says: 19

“Some of the carved tablets were connected with these rites; one was certainly known as that of the ika while there is said to have been another called timo, which was the list kept by each ahu of his murdered men.”
The name ika, 20 which was used for sacrificed victims, as well as the name timo 21 indicates that there was a direct relationship between wooden tablets and death ceremonies. There is also reported that after the death of one of the last chiefs, the ariki Ngaara, three tablets have been buried with him.

The sacred character of the wooden tablets appears in the tapu surrounding them. It is told that there was in earlier times a death penalty for touching the tablets. Jaussen, Thomson, and Routledge got some texts which were supposed to be the contents of the tablets. As we shall discuss later, the authenticity of these texts could not be checked up now, because it is assumed that the natives looking upon the tablets, only gave a recitation of known contents. At any rate, it seems interesting to study the contents of such supposed texts. They consisted of lamentations, creation myths; the reading of a love-song from one tablet was ridiculed by other natives. The general impression which we get from the kind of contents as well as from the ceremonial character of the reading suggests that the texts may have been conjurations. T. Jaussen reports the explanation of his interpreter: 22

“My interpreter taught me that the people had the custom of uniting themselves in a circle and to perform the recitation as a kind of cult.”

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Such cults in relation to the tablets are also reported to us. On occasion of a festival in honour of the father the ariki and the rongorongo men performed a prayer for the father, while a woman with a prayer-tablet, called kohau-o-te-pure, (kohau: wood; pure: 23 to pray, invocation) stood on the roof of a house. As a fertility charm, a woman with a child and a wooden tablet circled around a post. But most of such ceremonials have been performed on the occasion of burials. Here it seems fairly sure that the recitations of the rongorongo men from their wooden tablets referred to conjurations for rebirth. As the pictographs on the statues as well as on the small wooden images represented a rebirth symbolism, it seems very probable that the glpyhs originally served in general for this purpose, as was the case with the glyphs of the civilizations of the Old Orient, and with the runes of Nordic peoples. Hence the tablets probably were originally tablets of the dead, and there might have been a time when the wooden tablets with their inscriptions formed the walls of a coffin, as in the death cult of Old Egypt.

But the relation of the Easter island tablets to the death-cult becomes confirmed by other considerations. The monuments on the burial-places as well as the wooden images are representations of the dead ancestors, and both monuments and wooden images have sometimes inscriptions on their body. Furthermore, Routledge stated that some of the wooden tablets were “the list kept by each ahu of its murdered men”. 24 She reports on another occasion, 25

“that in perhaps half a dozen cases different persons recited words approximately the same, beginning: He timo te ako-ako . . .”

Timo, as mentioned above, signifies the mourning for a murdered man.

As the Polynesian customs are so very similar to those of Easter island in all their details, we might expect to obtain some information of the significance of the tablets from these sources. E. S. Craighill Handy reports 26 that men,

“destined for the tribal god were taken into the temple, where they were killed and sacrificed with the reciting of the chant . . .”

T. Henry reports such chants during a human sacrifice: 27

“Now eat of the long-legged fish oro-mata-oa. O my king, eat of thy fish of the sea, my king, Orotaua. Welcome to you, o host of gods in coming here to Oro in his home, the home of all the gods. Hail to the gods!”

And another example: 28

“O great Ta-aora, your curse is death, here is your fish, the fish caught from the vai-o-tu (water of stability). Well it is, o gods, that you have given this fish into our hands. There o gods, take it as a fish for yourselves, that all his family be extirpated and not one be spared.”

Thus the tablets of Easter island seem to be grouped around the subject of death, being either maledictions on death or conjurations against death. As it is told of the belief of the Egyptians as well as of the - 5 Mayans, the origin of hieroglyphics was in Hades where the hieroglyphics served as a conjuration for rebirth; this was probably also the case in Easter island.


The first wooden script-tablets sent to Europe were regarded in Berlin as stencils for making native cloth; those sent to the English Ethnological society evoked some interest after a time, but in general the interest aroused by those specimens of a lost culture was very slight.

The first attempt at deciphering was made by the discoverer of the wooden tablets, Father Eyraud; but the only knowledge he gained was reported by Jaussen, 29 namely, that each sign has its name. As we shall see later this knowledge seems to be more important than that of all investigators after that time.

A next attempt was made by Father Zumbohm. He reports: 30

“The natives told me the names which I did not remember, since some of them began to read this script in singing, but others cried: ‘No, it is not like this’ The disagreement of my masters was so great that in spite of my application I had not learnt more after their lesson that I had known before.”

The most important attempt at deciphering was made by Tepano Jaussen who was Archbishop of Tahiti. When natives brought him a ring covered with inscriptions, the at that time almost forgotten discovery of Eyraud was revived. Since 1868 he made tireless efforts to collect existing tablets and to decipher them. He believed himself to be on the threshold of his discovery when he found a native named Metoro-touara who was said to have studied the art of reading and chanting from the tablets under three famous teachers: Ngahu, Reimiro, and Paovaa. Metoro claimed that he still knew the meaning of the signs. Firstly, Jaussen obtained the most important information that the tablets were written in the manner called boustophedon, which is known to us from inscriptions of the old Orient. The lines on the tablets are written in such a way that in one row the legs of the figures are standing on the ground while in the following row all figures appear reversed, so that their heads are below and their legs above, like a reflection in water. The second important hint was given by Metoro's assertion that the beginning of the tablets is at the left side of the lowest, row. Jaussen describes the first attempts at reading the tablets with Metoro as follows: 31

“I put one of my tablets into the hands of Metoro. He turns them around, looks for the beginning of the text and begins to sing. He sung the lowest row from left to right, arriving at the end of the row he sung the next upper row from right to left, the third one from left to right, the fourth from right to left, as one leads the oxen when labour-ploughing. Arrived at the last row on top, he turned the whole tablet from the obverse side to the reverse one and. beginning with the top row, went down row by row like oxen furrowing the two sides of a slope and whose labour, begun at the base of one side, would end at the base of the other side. The reader may turn the tablet after each row if not being able to read the reversed signs.”

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This detailed report indicates that Metoro really was familiar with this art of writing.

Since the student of Easter island did not succeed with the deciphering of the tablets they expressed the opinion that the contents which the natives read from the tablets were only memorized recitations which had nothing to do with the script of the tablets, and they support this belief by the disagreement of Zumbohm's masters, and the different versions which were obtained by other investigators on presenting the same tablet to different interpreters. But such supposition does not seem to be probable for the procedure of Metoro, since Jaussen reports various actions of Metoro when reading the tablets. In the case just described, Metoro having finished the obverse side of the tablet, continued his reading with the top row of the reverse side. But in another tablet he started on the reverse side again with the lowest row, as he had on the obverse side, indicating that this difference in reading originated in the fact that in this case the reverse side began with a new text having noting to do with the preceding one. Such a differentiation would not occur if Metoro had only projected memorized texts upon the tablets.

There is another fact, cited by C. De Harlez, 32 which speaks for the congruence of text and script. He found that identical glyphs in general have the same words and concepts in the text. Thus a mere improvization of Metoro seems to be very improbable. But on the other hand, such a text, as transmitted by Jaussen, does not seem to have much sense. Jaussen concluded in the preface of his publication of the text: “One must resign, there is no sense in it”. But here we have to consider that the texts were probably written in a telegraphic style, giving only the important ideas and omitting all conjunctions, pronouns and grammatical elements. Routledge got such information from her interpreter, and she says: 33

“. . . it illustrates interestingly the general method of condensation in which, even in the recitations, a few words assume or implicate extended knowledge.”

In this way a text only becomes fully understandable if the reader knows in advance the objects to which the text refers, a procedure which is known from many old inscriptions of other peoples. If Metoro did not know these old contents his translation would have the value of a telegram read by a child. But on the other hand, for understanding such texts we have to adapt ourselves to the thinking of these people, that is, we have to know their associations which to them are so self-evident that they omit to mention them. Egyptian ceremonial texts, without knowing such associations, partly seem to be even more senseless.


Jaussen finally gave up his studies of the tablets. His scepticism was supported by his collaborator Roussel who had the same experience as did Zumbohm before him, that other natives interrupted Metoro, insisting that the translation was wrong. And really, the natives succeeded so far that Roussel abandoned his task. The attitude of the other natives seems more understandable if we consider that the texts were regarded as sacred ones, that it was their absolute intention - 7 to hide them from the strangers. The emotional involvement of the natives, reported by the investigators, their crying and insisting, seems to confirm their intention to disturb the attempt at deciphering.

Since that time, later investigators were misled in their efforts, and finally the opinion of Mrs. Routledge was adopted, namely, that the graphic system was of a mnemotechnic kind and that the symbols only served as aids for texts learned by heart. All investigators affirm the resistence of the natives to communicate anything related to the sacred script, and their refusal to read the tablets.

Thomson was the first to use tricks for obtaining some information. He found a native of whom it was told that he possessed the knowledge of writing. Thomson reports: 34

“He was asleep when we entered and took charge of the establishment. When he found escape impossible he became sullen, and refused to look at or touch a tablet. As a compromise it was proposed that he should relate some of the ancient traditions. This was readily acceeded to, because the opportunity of relating the legends to an interested audience did not often occur, and the positive pleasure to be derived from such an occasion could not be neglected. During the recital certain stimulants that had been provided for such an emergency were produced, and though not pressed upon our ancient friend, were kept prominently before him until, as the night grew old and the narrator weary, he was included as the ‘cup that cheers’ made its occasional rounds. A judicious indulgence in present comforts dispelled all fears in regard to the future state, and at an auspicious moment the photographs of the tablets owned by the bishop were produced for inspection. Old Ure-vaeiko had never seen a photograph before, and was surprised to find how faithfully they reproduced the tablets which he had known in his young days. A tablet would have met with opposition, but no objection could be urged against a photograph, especially something possessed by the good bishop, whom he had been instructed to reverence. The photographs were recognized immediately, and the appropriate legend related with fluency and without hesitation from beginning to end. The story of all the tablets of which we had a knowledge was finally obtained, the words of the native being written down by Mr. Salmon as they were uttered, and afterwards translated into English.”

But Thomson considered the result of his experiment a negative one. He remarks: 35

“Ure-vaeiko's fluent interpretation of the tablet was not interrupted, though it became evident that he was not actually reading the characters. It was noticed that the shifting of position did not accord with the number of symbols on the lines, and afterwards when the photograph of another tablet was substituted, the same story was continued without the change being discovered. The old fellow was quite discomposed when charged with fraud at the close of an all-night session, and at first maintained that the characters were, all understood, but he could not give the signification of hieroglyphics copied indiscriminately from tablets already marked. He explained at great length that the actual value and significance of the symbols had been forgotten, but the - 8 tablets were recognized by unmistakeable features and the interpretation of them was beyond question; just as a person might recognize a book in a foreign language and be perfectly sure of the contents without being able to acutally read it.”

Certainly something, if not all, was wrong with the recital of Thomson's interpreter, which shows the trick with the substitution of another photograph. But then Thomson obtained another result that made his general conclusions doubtful. He reports: 36

“An old man called Kaitae, who claims relationship the last king, Maurata, afterwards recognized several of the tablets from the photographs and related the same story exactly as that given previously by Ure-vaeiko.”

Thus it seems that truth and untruth were mixed up in the first interpreter's accomplishment, and we do not know how many of the lies were due to forgery and how many to the “stimulants that had been provided for such an emergency”. The fact that two different interpreters independently of each other gave exactly the same translation for some tablets seems decisive enough to suppose that the reading was partly correct. Mrs. Routledge had the same experience. She reports: 37

“It was noted, however, with interest, that in perhaps half a dozen cases different persons recited words approximately the same, beginning “he timo he ako-ako, he ako-ako tena”, and on inquiry it was said that they were derived from one of the earliest tablets and were generally known. It was ‘like the alphabet learned first’.”

The first reason for a failure in deciphering seems to be the effort of the natives to intentionally mislead, but not trained in that way of lying and unable to improvise longer texts, they probably partly read the original content which also determined their associations when attempting to falsify. Thus we might understand the coincidence of parts read by different interpreters.

On the other hand, the stories written on the tablets probably were known by some professionals, so that such a man only needed some directions for reading, as a musician reads his music. In that sense, the trick used by Thomson and later on by Routledge in secretly substituting one script-photograph for another is not convincing for the purpose of demonstrating the lack of coincidence between script, and reading. The interpreter, reading the first rows, then was able to recite the whole story from memory, not obliged to do the laborious work of turning the tablet, according to the boustrophedon. Under the emotional bondage of the sacred texts or of his intention of forgery he was, of course, not able to observe the trick used by his exploiter and continued his recitation.

Anyway, the object of the natives, to deceive, was successful. Routledge concludes: 38

“The natives were like children pretending to read and only reciting.”

She considered the graphic system of Easter island as only a mnemotechnic scheme whose symbols only served as aids like the beads of a rosary, for reciting texts learned by heart.

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Metraux also denied the possibility of a script, saying that one could not speak of a phonetic value of these symbols since they were not read but only served to call forth an association of ideas without having any intrinsic value.

A second reason for a failure in deciphering was the existence of certain expectations of the investigators. As an example, the report of Routledge, 39 describing how her interpreter drew two symbols, “stating they represented the man who gave the koro”; but she adds, “there was no sign meaning a man”. This might hold true for a European observer, but the native of Easter island probably immediately would have recognized either the shape of a man or the symbol standing for it. The second paralogism is the presumption that the glyphs have to represent graphically what they express, and not phonetically. In the latter case, glyphs expressing “a man” have not to represent the picture of a man, but sounds forming the word “man”.


If we consider it objectively, a hieroglyphic system can be:

  • 1. a mnemotechnic aid for generally-known concepts (the glyph has the value of beads of a rosary);
  • 2. a pictographic representation (the glyph has the value of an illustration);
  • 3.an ideogram (the glyph has the value of a symbol);
  • 4. a syllabic writing (the first syllable of the word describing the object of a glyph's picture is used as a phonetic value);
  • 5. an alphabetic writing.

Students of Easter island glyphs, such as Jaussen, Routledge, and Metraux, considered the glyphs only as a preliminary step to writing, namely, as a mnemotechnic aid. Routledgess 40 described each glyph as “a peg on which to hang a large amount of matter which was committed to memory”. Metraux, 41 not objecting to the value of the recorded “translations”, supposes that the texts of the wooden tablets had a metrical character, each sign corresponding to a verse.

If the readings of the interpreters have any value—and all investigators agree in admitting the strong probability that the texts do correspond in a certain way to the respective tablets—we have to consider the proportion in the number of glyphs and of words in the texts. Such a counting of glyphs and corresponding words in some tablets was already made by M. Haberlandt.42 He compared the number of words of one of Thomson's texts with the number of glyphs representing this text and found that there were 89 words and 210 glyphs. If the text as such should be correct and if each glyph should represent a whole verse, as Metraux supposes, 210 glyphs should result in 210 verses. This cannot be the case when only 89 works are used. But also Routledge's opinion that each glyph was “a peg on which to hang a large amount of matter which was committed to memory”, is no more justified, because actually there are less words then there are glyphs.

It appears that one glyph can neither represent a verse nor a sentence nor even a single word. There are also no comments of the natives that specific glyphs express in a fixed way certain concepts used for ceremonial purposes, as is the case in ornamental represent- - 10 ations where a whole ceremony is grouped around a specific symbol; on the contrary, all natives of Easter island consider the hieroglyphics as a script.


The question now arises which kind of script might be represented by the hieroglyphics of Easter island. There are different observations which do not fit into the thesis that the glyphs are pictographs. The glyphs have not the narrative and illustrative character which picto-graphs have in general, as e.g., the pictographs of the Eskimos and of the North-American Indians. Many of the signs seem to be too abstract to be understandable as pictographs. Furthermore, the signs in pictographs are generally not determined by fixed forms as is the case in Easter island, but change their forms if the same thing is represented on different occasions. Repetitions of the same abstract sign and the distribution of glyphs in rows of writing, the failure to separate certain symbols into one pictographic concept, all these phenomena make it obvious that the signs are not those of pictographs.

Now the glyphs could be stereotyped ideograms. For this possibility the statements of native interpreters seem to speak. The interpreter of Pater Zumbohm asserted, that “each sign has its name”, and Jaussen noted the names obtained from his interpreter Metoro. These designations consist partly not only of one word, but of a concept expressed by different words, as e.g., “he has two ideas in his head”, 43 or, “land of Hotomatua”, 44 etc.


There is one other quotation from Mrs. Routledge's interpreter, which suggests that the glyphs may not have exclusively an ideographic significance. His statement was, 45 that there were “the same picture, but other words”. This seems to mean that the same glyph can serve for the formation of different words.

If the ideogram stands for a determined concept, the words expressing this concept must be always the same. The same glyph only can be used for the formation of different words if the glyph only functions as a phonetic element like a syllable or like a letter. Now the conlbination of the same glyph with different other glyphs forms different words, hence we have “the same picture but other words”.

A remark by Thomson also might lead to the supposition of a partially phonetic character of the script”. When Thomson's interpreter read one tablet (Apai), he omitted two hieroglyphics, saying: 46

“The next hieroglyphics on the tablet are supposed to have been written in some ancient language, the key of which has long been lost.”

If these glyphs had been only ideograms the interpreter could easily have been given an idea from analogy with other glyphs, but if they had a phonetic value, these glyphs had formed a word which the interpreter could decipher but did not understand, a word, “written in some ancient language, the key of which has long been lost”.

If one now considers the Easter island glyphs as a partly phonetic system the question arises whether it was a syllabic or an alphabetic system. The possibility of an alphabetic system seems to be excluded by the fact of the high number of glyphs. Jaussen reported 256 - 11 different glyphs, A. Piotrowski 47 collected 227 signs from the two tablets guarded in Leningrad. An exact collection of signs from all tablets at our disposal has never been made, although the importance of such a procedure was suggested by E. B. Taylor already in 1875. For our purpose, the high number of symbols decides that they could never have served exclusively as signs of an alphabet which has only 15 sounds in the spoken language; 48 but if phonetic at all, the Easter island script must have been a syllabic system.


If we study the different, reports about Easter island and the various attempts at deciphering with the aid of native interpreters, Metoro seems to have been the most trustworthy. We may conclude this from his very detailed informations regarding the way of writing in the boustrophedon and of starting the reading at the left side of the lowest row. Jaussen collected a list of all glyphs which he found in his tablets; then he asked Metoro very carefully about the significance of each of these 256 glyphs. Metoro told him the name which each glyph had, thus confirming the information which Pater Zumbohm had obtained before him, namely, that “each sign has its specific name”. In the same way Father Eyraud wrote in 1864: 49

“Each figure has its name; but the little esteem they show for these tablets makes me think that the characters are relics of a primitive writing and that they are now preserved without any inquiry into the sense of them.”

Some of these designations can easily be verified if, e.g., the glyph obviously represents a bird and we hear that its designation is “bird”; or if the sign shows a hand and the name does express this object. This is actually the case with 28 simple signs out of 149, i.e., in about 20 per cent, of glyphs. Such immediate identity of name and picture is not very frequent, because abstract representations, involving an interpretation, are present in the majority of cases. But since Metoro's other informations regarding the script seem to be trustworthy and since the significance of that part of the glyphs, showing distinctive objects, is very obvious, we have no reason to believe that the abstract part of the glyphs have an arbitrary designation. Furthermore, we may consider that Jaussen reports with extreme exactness his observation of the actions of his interpreter; as he, for instance, described carefully the manner in which Metoro handled the tablet. Jaussen gives no indication that Metoro gave the names of the symbols in a hesitant or obviously untruthful way, but he must have done so unequivocally and with decision, so that Jaussen never doubted the authenticity of these glyphs and their significance. Thus for our first attempt at deciphering, Jaussen's list seems to us a material justified to work with. Besides this list of glyphs and their names we have another source of information at our disposal; that is, the spoken language of Easter island, which was transcribed in Latin letters by H. Roussel“ 50 by E. Martinez 51 and, the most important, by W. Churchill. 52

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Besides the names of glyphs Jaussen recorded an entire translation of the tablets as made by Metoro and published the original Easter island text as well as a French translation. But the content appeared so senseless and arbitrary that Jaussen, in the introduction to the monograph which he wrote for the French Academy, concluded, 53 “One must resign, there is no sense in it”. If the author himself considered his work as fruitless, we are not astonished that all later students of Easter island did not give any serious consideration to his studies. The main mistake of Jaussen was perhaps only to collect his material without analyzing it. For instance, Metoro gave him the name and the meaning of the signs of tablet Aroukou-kourenga and a complete translation of the same tablet, and Jaussen seems not to have compared the meaning of symbols in his list with the words appearing in the translation.

Now, seventy-three years later, we tried to do this work for him. We took Jaussen's list, put a photograph of the tablet Aroukou-kourenga 54 before us and, looking at Metoro's translation, saw whether we could find a correspondence between his translation and the meaning of the corresponding glyphs on his list. Metoro remarked that he began with his translation on the left side of the lowest row. The first sentence of Metoro was:

"Ka tu i te ki te henua e rua no Hoatumatua” and Jaussen translated these words as follows:
“Il vient dans le ciel sur les deux terres de Hoatumatua.”
(He comes to heaven on the two lands of Hoatumatua.)

Looking at the photograph of our tablet and the list of glyphs, we really find that the second glyph of the first row corresponds to a glyph in Metoro's list, indicating the name Hoatumatua. Besides we see that we can take this glyph for an ideogram, expressing the name Hoatumatua. We also find the glyph before the name of the mythical king in Metoro-Jaussen's list, having there the significance:

“Noho ki te rangi ki te henua”, translated as:
“He lives in heaven, on earth”. 55

Now, both glyphs together can be translated according to the list:

“Hoatumatua lives in heaven, on earth”.

Metoro's translation from the tablet was:

“He comes to heaven on the two lands of Hoatumatua”.

The basic concepts, Hoatumatua and “being in heaven and on earth” appear equally in list and translation, but there is a deviation in the relation of words. It seems that the translator made a free version, varying the original sense.

In the following comparison we give the meaning of glyphs from Jaussen's list, corresponding to the sequence of identical glyphs on the tablet. Now there appears the following:

  • (a) Sometimes the significance of list and translation is the same.
  • (b) Sometimes the basic meaning, still recognizable, is varied.
  • (c) Sometimes a pretended translation is given, for which there are no corresponding glyphs. (These words have no number-designation over the translation.)
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From Photographs kindly provided by the Rev. Père Ildefonse Alazard. (Aroukou-kourenga=the French recording of Maori Aruku-kurenga).

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The coincidence between the basic meaning of glyphs and the basic meaning of the translation seems to confirm the belief that the reading was based upon a deciphering of glyphs and, as Metoro said: 56

“. . . besides the word giving the proper meaning of the sign, the chant includes groups of other words added by the fancy of the artists”.

But the basic meaning without the artist's addition must give us a rudimentary sense which even might become clear if we separate the additions from the literal translation of the glyphs.


In the following translation of the first three rows of the tablet Aroukou-kourenga the reader may compare the translation by means of the following indications: There is beside the translation of each glyph a number which indicates where the corresponding glyph in Jaussen's list can be found. The numbers on the margin correspond to the number of glyphs as they are represented in the separated rows of the tablet. When there are glyphs on the tablet, to which Metoro does not refer in his reading, we insert “missing” in column 1; when there is a reading of Metoro where no corresponding glyphs do appear on the tablet we insert “missing in column 2”.

Reading of the tablet by Metoro Meaning of glyphs according to the list of Metoro-Jauassen Glyph-number of list Glyph-number of tablet
KA TU I TE RANGI KI TE HENUA E RUA (Il vient dans le ciel sur les deux terres) 57 He comes to heaven on the two lands 58 NOHO KI TE RANGI KI TE HENUA (Il demeure au ciel, sur laterre) He lives in heaven, on earth 153 1
NO HOATUMATUA (de Hoatumatua) of Hoatumatuapi HENUA NO HOATUMATUA (terre de Hoatumatua) land of Hoatumatua 152 2
KA HAKANOHOA (il prend son siege) he takes his throne NOHO (demeurer) to live 220 3
KI TE HITO O TE RANGI KI TE HENUA (au haut du ciel et sur la terre) in the height of heaven and on earth NOHO KI TE RANGI KI TE HENUA (il demeure au ciel, sur la terre) he lives in heaven, on earth. 153 4
(missing) (see glyph 7) HENUA (terre) earth, land 30 5
- 26
Reading of the tablet by Metoro Meaning of glyphs according to the list of Metoro-Jaussen Glyph-number of list Glyph-number of tablet
TE ATARIKI (le prince ainé) the eldest prince TE ATARIKI (le prince ainé) the eldest prince 14 6
KI TE HENUA KI TONA HENUA (sur la terre, sur la terre) on earth, on earth NOHO (demeurer) to live 220 7
KUA TERE TE VAKA (canot flottant) flowing canoe VAKA (pirogue) boat 116 8
KI TONA TALUNA (vers son cadet) toward his younger brother TE TEINA (le cadet) the younger brother 15 9
MAI TAE ATU KITE TAMAITI (venu vers l'enfant) having come to the child TAMAITI (l'enfant) the child 13 10
(missing) KOIA (lui, il, elle) him, he, she 10 11
KOIA E HIRI KI TE RANGI KI TE HENUA (ainsi s'efforce d'arriver au ciel sur la terre) thus he strives to arrive in heaven on earth KUA HIRI KI TE RANGI KI TE HENUA (il est allé au ciel sur la terre) he is gone to heaven on earth 154 12
MAI TAE ATU IA KI TE HENUA (lui arrivé sur la terre) he arrived on earth (missing) (see glyph 15) (missing)
KOIA KOAKOA KI TE RANGI (ainso réjoui dans le ciel) thus joyous in heaven (missing) (see glyph 15) (missing)
KUA OHO KI TE HENUA (levé, dressé sur la terre) risen, set up on earth (missing) (see glyph 15) (missing)
E TANGATA ERA E KA OHO KOA (ces hommes se levent) these men arise (missing) (missing)
(missing) HENUA NO HOATU-MATUA (terre de Hoatumatua) land of Hoatumatua 152 13
(missing) TE INOINO (ce qui ést eclatant, rayonnant) who is radiant, brilliant 184 or 30 14
- 27
Reading of the tablet by Metoro Meaning of glyphs according to the list of Metoro-Jaussen Glyph-number of list Glyph-number of tablet
(missing) KUA HIRI KI TE RANGI KI TE HENUA (il est alié au ciel sur la terre) he is gone to heaven on earth 154 15
(missing) HENUA (terre) earth, land 30 16
(missing) TE ATARIKI (le prince ainé) the eldest prince 14 17
(missing) TE INOINO (ce qui est éclatant, rayonnant) which is radiant, brilliant 184 18
KA NOHO IA KO TE MATUA I RUNGA I TO PEPE (celui-ci reste assis le pere sur le dessus de son siege) this one remains sitting, the father upon his throne TE MATUA I RUNGA O TONA PEPE (le pere est sur son siege) the father is sitting on. his throne 156 19
MAI TAE ATU KI TONA TA MAITI (celui-ci vient vers son enfant) this one comes to his child TAMAITI (enfant) child 13 20
E KUA KOAKOA IA KI TE RANGI (celui-ci est réjoui dans leciel) this one is joyous in heaven KUA KOAKOA KI TE RANGI (il est réjoui au ciel) he is joyous in heaven 157 21
KUA RERE TE MANU (oiseau envolé) bird flown away MANU TERE (oiseau qui vole) flying bird 66 22
KI RUNGA O TE HENUA (au-dessus de la terre) over the earth HENUA (terre) earth, land 30 23
MAI TA ATU KI (il est venu pres de) he approached (missing) (missing)
TE TANGATA MEA KAI KI TE HENUA (l'homme qui vient manger assis par terre) the man who eats sitting on earth TE TANGATA KAI (l'homme qui mange) the man who eats 225 24
(missing) NOHO (demeurer) to live 220 25
- 28
Reading of the tablet by Metoro Meaning of glyphs according to the list of Metoro-Jaussen Glyph-number of list Glyph-number of tablet
(missing) TANGATA HANGA (hommes au travail) men at work 226 26
(missing) TANGATA HANGA (hommes au travail) men at work 226 27
KO TE TANGATA HANGAI TE MOA (cet homme cherche a prendre Poiseau Moa) this man tries to catch the bird Moa MOA RERE (poule qui vole) filling fowl 64 28
KUA UA KI TE MOA (il a jeté de l'eau sur Moa) he poured water upon the Moa UA (pluie, eau) water 40 29
KUA KOTIIA E TE MOA E (il lui a coupé des morceaux) MOA RERE (poule qui vole) flying jowl 64 30
he cut it into pieces ROTIA HENUA (terre coupé) cut soil, tilled soil 31 31
KA VERO KOL (il l'a percé de la lance) he pierced it with his lance (missing) (missing)
MAI TAE ATU KI TE MAITAKI (il arrive en un lieu sur) he arrives on a sure place (missing) (missing)
(missing) MOA RERE (poule qui vole) flying fowl 64 32
(missing) NOHO (demeurer) to live 220 33
MAI TAE ATU KI TE ARIKI E NOHO MAI (il arrive jusqu' eau roi qui est assis) he arrives unto the king who is seated ARIKI (le roi) the king 7 34
KUA RERE IA KOIA (il court ainsi) thus he runs (missing) (missing)
KUA RERE KI TE MAITAKI (il est couru au lieu sur) he has run to the sure place (missing) (missing)
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Reading of the tablet by Metoro Moaning of glyphs according to the list of Metoro-Jaussen Glyph-number of list Glyph number of tablet
KI TE HUA RAE O TE HENUA (sur la place en promomtoire de la terre) to the place on the promontory of the land (missing) (missing)
KOIA HAKAIRI (ainsi il se repose) thus he is resting (missing) (missing)
(missing) TANGATA (l'homme) man 9 35
(missing) NOHO (demeurer) to live 220 36
(missing) TE HUA RAE (les enfants) the children 11 37
(missing) TAMAITI (l'enfant) the child 13 38
(missing) HENUA (terre) earth, land 30 39
(missing) HUA HAKA HIRI IA (il est parti) he is gone away 218 40
  • 1. He lives in heaven on earth,
  • 2. land of Hoatumatua,
  • 3. (he) lives,
  • 4. he lives in heaven, on earth.
  • 5. (On) earth,
  • 6. the eldest prince
  • 7. lives
  • 8. (on) a boat.
  • 9. The younger brother,
  • 10. the child
  • 11. he
  • 12. is gone to heaven, on earth,
  • 13. the land of Hoatumatua,
  • 14. the brilliant,
  • 15. he is gone to heaven, on earth.
  • 16. (On) earth,
  • 17. the eldest prince,
  • 18. the brilliant,
  • 19. the father is sitting on his throne.
  • 20. The child
  • 21. is joyous in heaven.
  • 22. The bird flies
  • 23. (over) the earth,
  • 24. Man eats
  • 25. lives,
  • 26. man is at work,
  • 27. man is at work.
  • 28. The fowl flies
  • 29. (over) the water,
  • 30. the fowl flies
  • 31. (over) the tilled soil,
  • 32. the fowl flies,
  • 33. lives,
  • 34. The king
  • 35. man
  • 36. lives,
  • 37. the children
  • 38. The child
  • 39. (on) earth
  • 40. is gone away.
- 30

There are tales told by the natives, which seem to illuminate some details of the chant. Hoatumatua, the first king, was a deified ancestor and considered a mediator between heaven and earth; unlimited power was attributed to him. Thomson reports a chant, given by his interpreter as a translation of a wooden tablet (ea ha to rau ariiki ke te): 59

“What power has the great king in the universe? He has the power to create the stars, the clouds, the dew, the rain, and the moon”.

The remark of the boat, on which the eldest prince is living, may refer to Hoatumatua's arrival on a boat. Thomson reports: 60

“The island was discovered by king Hotu-matua, who came from the land in the direction of the rising sun, with two large double canoes . . .”

He reports furthermore: 61

“The king nominated his eldest son as his successor (Tuumaeheke), and it was ordained that the descent of the kings should always be through the eldest son”.

The younger brother of the king is also mentioned in the tradition of the origin of the islanders. This brother, Machaa, 62

“lands upon the same island which his brother's party reach two months later, by simply steering towards the setting sun”.

Thus one tradition goes back to two ancestor kings, the king and his younger brother.

Thomson reports furthermore: 63

“The tradition continues by a sudden jump into the following extraordinary connection of affairs: Many years after the death of Hotu-matua, the island was about equally divided between his descendants and the ‘long-eared race’ and between them a deadly feud raged . . .The ‘long ears’ had planned the utter annihilation of their enemies. A long and deep ditch was dug across Hoto-iti and covered with brushwood, and into this the ‘long ears’ arranged to drive their enemies, when the brush-wood was to be set on fire and every man exterminated. The trap was found out, and the plan cirumvented by opening the battle premeditately and in the night. The‘ long ears’ were driven into the ditch they had built, and murdered to a man. After the defeat and utter annihilation of the ‘long-eared race’, the tradition goes on to state that peace reigned on the island, and the people increased in numbers and prosperity”.

Although the tradition continues, as Thomson says, “by a sudden jump”, it might be that the two races on the island were the descendants of Hotu-matua and of his younger brother Machaa. The “short ears” of Hoto-matua murdered the “long ears” of Machaa. But the islanders probably feared that the battle was continued in the other world. The stone statues on the burial-places show, as we shall describe on another occasion, long ears, and were probably erected in memory of the murdered race for soothing their vengeance.

- 31

Our text may describe that the ancestor “Hoatumatua lives in heaven, on earth”, that his descendant, “the eldest prince, the brilliant, the father (father of the whole people) is sitting on his throne”, that “the younger brother, the child, he is gone to heaven, he is gone, the child is joyous in heaven”. The text emphasizing that the murdered younger brother is gone but has his joy in heaven, also seems to have that purpose which presumably the stone statues on the burial places have, namely, to soothe the murdered enemy in the other world.


A comparison between the reading of the interpreter Metoro and our translation, based upon the vocabulary list which is transmitted by Metoro, shows such a high degree of identity that we can make several decisive conclusions.

  • 1. The reading of Metoro was not mere phantasy, but based upon a fixed meaning of glyphs.
  • 2. Metoro appears a trustworthy interpreter.
  • 3. Repetitions of the same sign with the same interpretation show that the signs are ideograms.
  • 4. The fact that the reader adds free interpretations to the basic signs and their concepts indicates that the structure of the text is that of a telegram which becomes intelligible by certain additions of the reader.
  • 5. The fact that the reading of Metoro with numerous free additions and our translation with several grammatical additions furnish the same basic content indicates that the content is a fixed entity, understandable in itself, but which may be enlarged by some additions as it was the case with the singers of the Homerian and Mediaeval epochs.
  • 6. All observations together lead us to conclude that the deciphering of the Easter island tablets with the glyph-key of Metoro-Jaussen seems to be definitely possible.

The translation of two further rows will support our conclusions. For these next rows no translation by Jaussen is given. Some kind of verification seems to be given by the meaningfulness of the text and by oral traditions, having a similar content as has the text.

We now present the second row of the same tablet, proceeding with the same method as applied before.

Meaning of glyphs according to the list of Metoro-jaussen Glyph no. of list Glyph no. of tablet
TAE KI TE HAKA HIRI IA (arriver au logis) to arrive at the domicile 219 1
HANU (chapeau en corde d'hibiscus) hat of hibiscus braid 134 2
MOA RERE (poule qui vole) flying fowl 64 3
HANU (chapeau en corde d'hibiscus) hat of hibiscus braid 134 4
MANU HURA ARERE (oiseau rouge qui vole) red flying bird 67 5
MANU KAHUA (oiseau au long bec) bird with a long beak 68 6
- 32
Meaning of glyphs according to the list of Metoro-Jaussen Glyph no. of list Glyph no. of tablet
HANU (chapeau en corde d'hibiscus) hat of hibiscus braid 134 7
MANU RERE (oiseau qui vole) flying bird 66 8
E HAKA NGANA NGANA MAU I TE TAPAMEA (il panse, tenant une igname rouge) he cultivates, holding a red yam 158 9
MOA RERE (poule qui vole) flying fowl 64 10
HANU (chapeau en corde d'hibiscus) hat of hibiscus braid 134 11
MANU RERE (oiseau qui vole) flying bird 66 12
KAKAHOKI (retourner) to return 193 13
MAU (saisir) to take possession of 192 14
MOA RERE (poule qui vole) flying fowl 64 15
HANU (chapeau en corde d'hibiscus) hat of hibiscus braid 134 16
MANU RERE (oiseau qui vole) flying bird 66 17
KOIA KI TE HENUA (il est sur la terre) he is on the earth. 151 18
MOA RERE (poule qui vole) flying fowl 64 19
HANU (chapeau en corde d'hibiscus) hat of hibiscus braid 134 20
MANU RERE (oiseau qui vole) flying bird 66 21
ROTIA HENUA (terre coupée) cut soil, tilled soil 31 22
HENUA (terre) earth 30 23
MOA RERE (poule qui vole) flying fowl 64 24
TANGATA MA TE MARO (hommes avec plumes) men with feathers 160 25
TE MARAMA E TE NUKU (l'armée et la lune) the army and the moon 162 26
TE HANU E-TE NUKU (le chapeau et l'essemblée) the hat and the assembly 161 27
(glyph unknown) 28
TANGATA (homme) man 9 29
MOA RERE (poule qui vole) flying fowl 54 64 30a
TE MAITAI (ce qui est bon) what is good 183 62 30b
HANU (chapeau en corde d'hibiscus) hat of hibiscus braid 134 31
HIO HIA (etre vu) to be seen 187 32
- 33
Meaning of glyphs according to the list of Metoro-Jaussen Glyph no. of list Glyph no. of tablet
KAKAHOKI (retourner) to return 193 33
MAU (saisir) to take possession 192 84
E HAKA NGANA NGANA MAU I TE TAPAMEA (il panse, tenant une igname rouge) he cultivates, holding a red yam 158 35
MAI TAE OHO MAI (il ne marche pas) he does not move on 234 36
ROTIA HENUA (terre coupée) cut soil, tilled soil 31 37
HENUA (terre) earth 30 38
MOA RERE (poule qui vole) flying fowl 64 39
KOIA KI TE HENUA (il est sur la terre) he is on the earth 151 40
  • 1. (He) arrives at his domicile
  • 2. (with his) crest (hat),
  • 3. the flying fowl.
  • 4. (With his) crest (hat),
  • 5. the red flying bird,
  • 6. the bird with the long beak,
  • 7. (with his) crest (hat),
  • 8. the flying bird,
  • 9. holding a red yam, he cultivates
  • 10. The flying fowl
  • 11. (with his) crest (hat),
  • 12. The flying bird
  • 13. returns,
  • 14. takes possession.
  • 15. The flying fowl
  • 16. (with his) crest (hat),
  • 17. the flying bird,
  • 18. he is on the earth,
  • 19. the flying fowl
  • 20. (with his) crest (hat),
  • 21. the flying bird
  • 22. (on) the tilled soil,
  • 23. (on) the earth,
  • 24. the flying fowl
  • 25. Men with feathers,
  • 26. the army and the moon,
  • 27. the hats and the assembly
  • 28.
  • 29. men
  • 30a (and) flying fowl
  • 30b (are) good,
  • 31. the hats
  • 32. are seen.
  • 33. (He) returns, 31. takes possession,
  • 35. holding a red yam, he cultivates
  • 36. He does not move on
  • 37. (on) the tilled soil,
  • 38. (on) the earth,
  • 39. the flying fowl,
  • 40. he is on the earth.

This text appears as a hymn about the bird which, as reported from Easter island, is the most venerated being there. The text describes that the bird arrives at its domicile. As we know from reports, the arrival of the birds, coming, from the sea, is celebrated on Easter island with the famous bird-ceremony. In this ceremony the participants wore hats of feathers, and we may assume that some of - 34 these birds had a crest which was considered as a hat. The symbol of hats with feathers is actually kept by most peoples. The earth is sometimes called “cut soil”, probably referring to the tilled earth. The idea that the bird with the long beak holds a red yam and prepares it for eating seems strange to us; but just this idea is the subject of a story which is still told in Easter island. This story is reported by A. Metraux as follows: 65

“There was a man called Itua-orunga-kavakava-kive who lived near the ahu Rikiriki. He planted sweet potatoes and made heaps of soil to plant yams. He also planted bananas and sugar cane. The following year he dug out the yams. The bird Haa-rongo passed by. The man who was working in the field called the bird, ‘Are you the bird that can give me the yam Onaku-o-te-takatore?’ He went on working with his yams. He made heaps of soil for them and buried the shoots. He finished planting and waited until the next month. The bird, Haa-rongo, saw a man of Tahai digging out the yam Onaku-o-te-takatore. The bird noticed that the eyes of the owner were turned away from the yam. He alighted, grasped the yam, and stuck his beak into it. The wings of the bird made a noise and the owner of the yams heard him. He turned his head and saw the bird running away with the yam. He shouted, ‘Go straight ahead, go straight ahead’ The bird flew away and arrived at Poike in front of the house of the first man. At the house he dropped the yam and returned to his country. The yam germinated, the stems were covered with leaves, and it grew. Suddenly the man noticed on the yam the spot pecked by the bird. He said, ‘The bird Haa-rongo has brought me this’.”

Another strange idea related to the flying fowl, “men with feathers, the army and the moon, hat and an assembly” is part of a story reported by Thomson. This story was indicated by Thomson's interpreter as a content of one of the wooden tablets, of tablet Apai. In this text there is also made reference to the bird's crest which becomes the symbol of the warrior: 66

“Each warrior, wearing the feather-hat of his clan—Era-nuku, the god of feathers, whose costume consists of feathers for the head . . .”

The bird-warriors, the “men with feathers”, the “army” of soldiers assemble at the council-fire in the night when the moon shines, and the feather-hat is the symbol of their obeisance to the god of feathers. Thomson tells:

“The warriors of the clan assembled promptly at the council-fire . . . The ceremonies concluded with obeisance to the god of feathers, each warrior wearing the feather-hat of his clan.”

The coincidence of concepts between our deciphering and the native stories, as reported by Thomson and Metraux, seem to be a valuable support of the correctness of our translation, which now follows as a whole.

Finally, we present the third row of the same tablet, again proceeding with the same method as applied previously.

Meaning of glyphs according to the list of Metoro-Jaussen Glyph no. of list Glyph no. of tablet
TUA I TINNO (polir la hache) to polish the axe 203 1
AHI (feu) fire 44 2
TUA I TINNO (polir la hache) to polish the axe 203 3
TANGATA HANGA (homme au travail) man at work 226 4a
TARA HOI (instrument pour graver) tool for engraving 119 4b
TANGATA HANGA (homme au travail) man at work 226 5a
TONGA (colonnes de case) posts of a hut 123 5b
TANGATA HANGA (homme au travail) man at work 226 6a
TONGA E TE HUKINGA (faitage et charpente) ridge and framework 121 6b
67 (il cultive) he cultivates 180 7
TE TEINA (le cadet) the younger brother 15 8
65 (il cultive) he cultivates 180 9
TANGATA HANGA (homme au travail) man at work 226 10a
VAE (bois) wood 125 10b
TANGATA HANGA (homme au travail) man at work 226 11
ROTIA HENUA (terre coupée) tilled soil 31 12
TANGATA HANGA (homme au travail) man at work 226 13
HURA (petits filets) small nets 129 14
TANGATA (homme) man 9 15a
HENUA (terre) soil 30 15b
RIMA VERE HENNA (main qui cultive) cultivating hand 166 15c
RIMA VERE HENNA (main qui cultive) cultivating hand 166 17a
HUANGA (fruits) fruits 106 17b
TUA I TINNO (polir la hache) to polish the axe 203 18
AHI (feu) fire 44 19
KAVA 69 (gingembre) ginger 103 20
- 36
Meaning of glyphs according to the list of Metoro-Jaussen Glyph no. of list Glyph no. of tablet
TE NGOE67 (voie lactée) Milky Way 29 21
TARAHOI (instrument pour graver) tool for engraving 119 22
TANGATA HANGA (homme au travail) man at work 226 23
TONGA (colonnes de case) posts of a hut 123 24
TANGATA HANGA (homme au travail) man at work 226 25
TONGA E TE HUKINGA (faitage et charpente) ridge and framework 121 26
TANGATA HANGA (homme au travail) man at work 226 27
TAU AVANGA (pierre pour déposer un défunt) grave stone 148 28
TANGATA HANGA (homme au travail) man at work 226 29
VERE HENUA (culture) cultivation 32 30
TANGATA HANGA (homme au travail) man at work 226 31
TAI (mer) sea 46 32
NOHO (etre assis) sitting 196 53
RAKAU TAU HIA NO TE HARE PURE (bois pour maison de prieres) wood for the house of prayer 115 34
NOHO (etre assis) sitting 196 36
HENUA (terre) soil 30 36
NOHO (etre assis) sitting 196 37
HURA (petits filets) small nets 129 38
NOHO (etre assis) sitting 196 89
HURA (petits filets) small nets 129 40

This text again is very different from the preceding ones; it describes the different kinds of the islanders' work. The stone axes were very crude in Easter island; Thomson refers to “axe-handles, mirotiki, hard wood, with natural joint, used for holding stone implements 70The cultivation of the soil was made with a digging stick. Metraux remarks: 71 “The digging stick . . . was used to loosen the soil, to break up clods of earth and to remove stones”.

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- 37
  • 1. (He) polishes the axe
  • 2. (at) the Are,
  • 3. (he) polishes the axe.
  • 4a Man at work
  • 4b (with) the tool for engraving,
  • 5a man at work
  • 5 (for) the posts of his hut, 6ait man at work
  • 6 (for) the ridge and framework.
  • 7. He cultivates,
  • 8. the younger brother,
  • 9. he cultivates.
  • 10a Man at work
  • 10b (in) the woods,
  • 11. man at work
  • 12. (on) the tilled soil,
  • 13. man at work
  • 14. (with) the small nets.
  • 15a Man
  • 15b (on) the soil
  • 15c cultivating
  • 16. ?
  • 17a cultivating
  • 17b fruits.
  • 18. polishes the axe
  • 19. (at) the fire
  • 20. (of) ginger (wood)
  • 21. (under) the Milky Way.
  • 22. (With) the tool for engraving,
  • 23. man at work
  • 24. (for) the posts of his hut,
  • 25. man at work
  • 26. (for) the ridge and frame-work,
  • 27. man at work
  • 28. (for) grave stones.
  • 29. Man at work
  • 30. (with) cultivation,
  • 31. man at work
  • 32. (at) sea,
  • 33. sitting
  • 34. (at) the wood for the house of prayers,
  • 35 sitting
  • 36. (on) the soil,
  • 37. sitting
  • 38. (with) the small nets,
  • 39. sitting
  • 40. (with) the small nets.

The first three rows in the tablet Aroukou-kourenga give us three very different hymns: the first a hymn about the ancestor, the second a hymn about the bird and the plantation of yams, and the third a hymn about work. The contents of these three texts correspond to known concepts of Easter island. Since we used for all three texts the same glyph-vocabulary of Metoro-Jaussen in a literal way, this vocabulary seems to be trustworthy and really the one used for the script. Unfortunately, Jaussen collected with Metoro only the symbols for the tablet Aroukou-kourenga, and only in an incomplete way. When trying to translate this tablet we sometimes encounter glyphs which are not contained in Jaussen's list. So far as we can see by a preliminary translation of the other rows of the tablet, the content refers to fishing and other occupations. J. L. Young remarks about the content of the tablets that, according to the information of the natives, 72

“the lettering refers to local matters such as planting, fishing, land titles, etc., and is not historical in the sense of relating events which occurred outside of Rapa-nui.”

The description which Metraux gives about a procreation chant of Easter island also holds true for our deciphered texts, namely, 73 - 38

“the scheme of the chant is simple and monotonous. It consists of the enumeration of a series of natural objects . . .”

The different chants might be a part of one whole story of the ancestors' arrival. The description begins with the ancestor king, Hoatumatua (first chant); the first step is the plantation of yam (second chant); the next step is the organization of work (third chant). A story, reported by Metraux, indicates that the plantation of yam was the first act of the immigrants after their arrival: 74

“Hotu-matua sent six men on board: The Living Wood. They came, they surveyed the land as a home for the king . . . They stopped, they mounded the soil for yams. (When) the yam mounds were finished, they planted the yams. (When) the planting was finished they went on to inspect the land . . .”


In his list of ideographic signs Jaussen gives one group which he calls “combined signs” (signs combinés). While the simple signs represent only one object or one idea these combined signs represent a group of ideas. The principle of a combination of elements is a pecularity which is known from other Polynesian languages. We quote the Encyclopedia Britannica:

“From tama, a child, and ariki, a chief, is made tamariki, a son; from tama, a child, and vahine, a woman, comes tamahine, a daughter; uritaata, 75 an ape, is made up of uri, a dog, and taata, a man.”

The combination in the language goes sometimes together with the combination in the hieroglyphics as is, for instance, the case with the name Hoatumatua, or also transmitted as Heatumatua. The glyph consists of three glyph elements, reported by Jaussen, the elements HENUA, earth, ATUA, god, and MATUA, father. Another example of language and glyph combination appears in word and glyph nohoga, 76 house, formed by the elements noho, to live, and tonga,post of the house. These examples suggest that the Easter islanders made a step toward syllabic writing. It is therefore possible that they had in general not only an expression in an ideographic way but also in a syllabic way. The wooden tablets do not lead us further in this line. On the back of the Orongo statue, however, there are certain glyphs which have a great similarity with those transmitted by Jaussen for the wooden tablets. Yet these glyphs read in an ideographic way do not give much sense. We therefore tried to use these glyphs on a syllabic basis. Since the name of the statue is known to us through the natives, a possible syllabic translation would find a support if the resulting contents would correspond to the significance of the statue's name. Actually, this seems to be the case. But since an analysis of name and procedure demands a long elaboration of the significance of the stone statues, we shall devote another report to this subject. 77

1   Maori, rongo, to hear; rorongo, to repeat the commencement of a song; rokau, wood.
2   Introduction a la connaissance de l'Il de Paques, Paris, 1935.
3   Ile de Paques, Paris, 1935.
4   “Die Osterinselschrift”, Anthropos, pp. 815-909.
5   Reported by Croft, see W. Churchill: The Polynesian Wanderings, Washington, 1911, p. 378.
6   According to W. J. Thomson (Postmaster of the U.S. Navy): “Te pito te henua or Easter Island”. Smithsonian Report, 1889. pp. 447-552.
7   “Ein inschriftliches Denkmal von dcr Osterinsel”, Zsch. d. Ges. f, Erdkunde zu Berlin, 1870, 5, pp. 469-470.
8   “Maori, toromiro, Podocarpus ferrugineus.
9   Annales de la propagation de la foi, 1886. 38, p. 71.
10   Die Osterinsct eine Staette praehistorischer Kultur in der Suedsee”, Berlin, 1883.
11   The Mystery of Easter Island, London, 1920.
12   op. eit.
13   The conserved tablets and other objects with inscriptions are guarded in the following museums (as quoted from S. Chauvet): L'Ile de Paques et ses mysteres, Paris. 1936, and Heine Geldern, op. cit.
14   The Polynesian Wanderings, Washington, 1911.
15   op. cit.
16   Maori, ahu, sacred mound, shrine.
17   Maori, ariki, firstborn male or female of a person of note; hence chief, priest.
18   op. cit., p. 217.
19   op. cit., p. 229.
20   Maori ika, fish; first man slain in battle.
21   Maori timo, bludgeon, short club.
22   L'Ile de Paques historique, ecriture et repertoire des signes des tablettes.
23   Maori pure, purification ceremony.
24   op. cit., p. 229.
25   op. cit., p. 248
26   “The native culture in the Marquesas”, Bishop Mus. Bull. 9. Honolulu, 1923. p. 138.
27   “Ancient Tahiti”, Bishop Mus. Bull 48, Honolulu, 1928.
28   T. Henry, op. cit., p. 310.
29   op. cit.. p. 250.
30   Reported by I. Alazard: Essai de bibliographie picpucienne, Braine Le Comte
31   op. cit., p. 252.
32   “L'Ile de Paques et ses Monuments graphiciues”, Rev. Intern. 1. 14, no. 5, Louvain, 1895.
“Les signes graphiques de l'Ile de Paques”. Le Museon, 1895, 15, n. 209.
33   op. cit., p. 252.
34   op. cit., p. 515.
35   op. cit., p. 516.
36   op. cit., p. 516.
37   op. cit., p. 248.
38   op. cit., p. 248.
39   op.cit., p 252
40   op.cit..p 302
41   op. cit.
42   Die schrifttafcln in der osterinsel, 1892, pp.274-276.
43   Jaussen's list no.212.
44   Jaussen's list.no 152.
45   op. cit., p. 253.
46   op. cit., p.519
47   “Deux tablettes, avec les marques gravees, de l'Ile de Paques”, Revue d'ethnogaraphic, 1925.6 p.425.
48   cf. Churchiil.op.cit., p.13.
49   Cited by R. J. Casey: Easter island, New York.pp.1931, pp 209-210.
50   “Vocabulaire de la langue de I'Ile de paques ou Rapanui”, Le Museon, Louvain, 1908, nos 2-3, pp. 159-254.
51   vocabulario de la lengua Rapanui Santiago, 1923.
52   Easter Island, the Rapanui Speech and the Peopling of South-East Polynesia, Carnegie Institution, 192.
53   See C. De Harlez, op. cit.
54   This tablet is 41 cm. long and 15.5cm. wide. Photograph or the tablet in: “More on Inscribed Tablets from Easter Island” by S. H. Ray;Man,July. 1912, pp 153-155.
55   List. no. 153.
56   Jaussen, op. cit., p. 252.
57   Translation by Jaussen.
58   Translation by the present author.
59   op. cit., p. 524.
60   ibid., p. 526.
61   ibid., p. 527.
62   ibid., p. 531.
63   op. cit., pp. 528-529.
64   The glyph as such is not mentioned by Jaussen, but is combined of two elements, to which Jaussen refers.
65   “Ethnology of Easter Island”, Bernice Bishop Museum, Bull. 160, Honolulu, 1940, p. 374.
66   op. cit.. pp. 518-519.
67   Words of Easter island language not given by Jaussen.
68   Signifiance of glyphs not give by Jaussen
69   Identification of glyph not certain.
70   op. cit.. p. 537.
71   “Ethnology of Easter Island”, Bernice Bishop Museum, Bull 160, Honolulu, 1940.
72   Quoted from Metraux: “Two Easter Island tablets in Bernice Bishop Museum. Honolulu”, Man, January, 1938. p. 2.
73   “Ethnology of Easter Island”, Bernice Bishop Museum, Bull. 160, Honolulu, 1940.
74   ibid., p. 58.
75   Maori kuritangata.
76   Maori nohoanga,seat (noho, sit, live): toko, supported by a pole; propped up; the ‘g’ here may represent Maori ‘ng’ or ‘k’.
77   “The Significance of Easter Island's Stone Statues and Wooden Idols.”