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Archivo:Rongorongo B-v Aruku-Kurenga (color).jpg

Tablet B Aruku kurenga, verso. Pacific rosewood, mid nineteenth century or earlier, Easter Island.
(Collection of the SS.CC., Rome)

There have been numerous attempts to decipher the rongorongo script of Easter Island since its discovery in the late nineteenth century. As with most undeciphered scripts, many of the proposals have been fanciful. Apart from a portion of one tablet which has been shown to deal with a lunar calendar, none of the texts are understood, and even the calendar cannot actually be read. There are three serious obstacles to decipherment: the small number of remaining texts, with 15,000 glyphs total; the lack of context such as illustrations in which to interpret the texts; and the fact that modern Rapanui is heavily mixed with Tahitian and is unlikely to closely reflect the language of the tablets—especially if they record a specialized register,—while the few remaining examples of the old language are restricted in genre.[citation needed]

Since the idea was proposed by Butinov and Knorozov in the 1950s, perhaps a majority of researchers have taken the line that rongorongo is not true writing but proto-writing, an ideographic- and rebus-based mnemonic device.[1] If this is the case, it is unlikely to ever be solved. For those who believed it to be writing, most assumed it was logographic, some that it was syllabic or a mixed system. Statistically it appears to be compatible with neither a pure logography nor a pure syllabary. The contents are unknown, and have been speculated to cover genealogy, navigation, astronomy, or agriculture. (Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov 2007)

Authentic rongorongo texts are written in alternating directions, a system called boustrophedon. They are mostly tablets made from irregular pieces of wood, sometimes driftwood, but the longest text is inscribed on a chieftain's staff. In the case of the tablets, the lines of text are often inscribed in shallow fluting carved into the wood. The glyphs themselves have a characteristic outline appearance. They include human, animal, plant, artifact, and geometric forms; human and animal figures with protuberances on each side of the head (possibly representing ears or eyes), such as Archivo:RR 200.png and Archivo:RR 280.png, are perhaps unique to rongorongo. Oral history suggests that only a small elite were ever literate, and that the tablets may have been considered sacred. (Fischer 1997)

Some two dozen wooden objects bearing rongorongo inscriptions, some heavily weathered, burned, or otherwise damaged, were collected in the late nineteenth century and are now scattered in museums and private collections. None remain on Easter Island. The objects are now known by a single uppercase letter, such as tablet C, or by a name, such as the Mamari Tablet. All are accessible to researchers except for the fragment F, which is in a private collection, and the two tablets in the Smithsonian, R and S. (Fischer 1997)


In 1868 the Bishop of Tahiti, Florentin-Étienne Jaussen, asked Father Hippolyte Roussel on Easter Island to find natives capable of reading the tablets. Roussel could find no-one, but the next year in Tahiti Jaussen found a laborer from Easter Island, Metoro Tau‘a Ure, who was said to know the inscriptions "by heart" (Fischer 1997a:47).

From 1869 to 1874 Jaussen worked with Metoro to decipher four of the tablets in his possession: B Aruku kurenga, C Mamari, D Échancrée ("notched", the one around which the cord was wound), and E Keiti. He published a list of the glyphs they identified. This is the famous Jaussen List which many at first took for a Rosetta Stone of rongorongo.[2]

The Jaussen list has been criticized for, among other inadequacies, glossing five glyphs as "porcelain", a material not found on Rapa Nui. This is a mistranslation: Jaussen glossed the five glyphs as porcelaine, French for both porcelain and the porcelain-like cowrie, and the Rapanui gloss pure is specifically "cowrie" (Englert 1993).[3]

Almost a century later, Thomas Barthel (1958:173–199) published some of Jaussen's notes. Guy (1999a) compared these with Barthel's sketches of the tablets and found that Metoro had read them "in an order incompatible with any understanding of their contents", reading the lunar calendar backwards and failing to recognized the "very obvious" pictogram of the full moon, and reading the lines of Keiti backwards on the obverse but forwards on the reverse. He concluded that Metoro either knew nothing or was careful not to reveal it.


William J. Thomson, paymaster on the USS Mohican, spent twelve days on Easter Island from 1886 19 December to 30 December, during which time he made an impressive number of observations, including some which are of interest for the decipherment of the rongorongo (Guy 1992).

Ancient calendar[]

Main gallery: Rapa Nui calendar.

Among the ethnographic data Thomson collected were the names of the nights of the lunar month and of the months of the year. This is key to interpreting the single identifiable sequence of rongorongo, and is notable in that it contains thirteen months: Other sources mention only twelve. Métraux (1940:52) criticizes Thomson for translating Anakena as August when in 1869 Roussel identified it as July, and Barthel (1978:48) restricts his work to Métraux and Englert, because they are in agreement while "Thomson's list is off by one month". However, Guy (1992) calculated the dates of the new moon for years 1885 to 1887 and showed that Thomson's list fit the phases of the moon for 1886. He concluded that the ancient Rapanui used a lunisolar calendar with kotuti as its embolismic month (its "leap month"), and that Thomson chanced to land on Easter Island in a year with a leap month.

Ure Va‘e Iko's recitations[]

Thomson was told of an old man called Ure Va‘e Iko who "professes to have been under instructions in the art of hieroglyphic reading at the time of the Peruvian raids, and claims to understand most of the characters" (Thomson 1891:515). He had been the steward of King Nga‘ara, the last king said to have had knowledge of writing, and although he was not able to write himself, he knew many of the rongorongo chants and was able to read at least one memorized text (Fischer 1997a:88–89). When Thomson plied him with gifts and money to read the two tablets he had purchased, Ure "declined most positively to ruin his chances for salvation by doing what his Christian instructors had forbidden" and finally fled (Thomson 1891:515). However, Thomson had taken photographs of Jaussen's tablets when the USS Mohican was in Tahiti, and he eventually cajoled Ure into reading from those photographs. The English-Tahitian landowner Alexander Salmon took down Ure's dictation, which he later translated into English, for the following tablets:

Ure Va‘e Iko's readings
Recitation (see links[4]) Corresponding tablet
Apai E (Keiti)
Atua Matariri R (Small Washington)[5]
Eaha to ran ariiki Kete S (Great Washington)[5]
Ka ihi uiga D (Échancrée)
Ate-a-renga-hokau iti poheraa C (Mamari)

Salmon's Rapanui was not fluent, and apart from Atua Matariri, which is almost entirely composed of proper names, his translations do not match Ure's readings. The readings themselves, seemingly reliable although difficult to interpret at first, become clearly ridiculous towards the end. The last recitation, for instance, which has been accepted as a love song on the strength of Salmon's English translation, is interspersed with Tahitian phrases which would not be expected on a pre-contact text, such as "the French flag" (te riva forani) and "give money for revealing [this]" (horoa moni e fahiti).[6] The very title is a mixture of Rapanui and Tahitian: pohera‘a is Tahitian for "death". (The Rapanui word is matenga.) Ure was an unwilling informant: Even with duress, Thomson was only able to gain his cooperation with "the cup that cheers" (that is, rum: Thompson 1891:515).[7] It is not surprising that information provided by an uncooperative and increasingly drunk informant should be compromised.

Nonetheless, while no one has succeeded in correlating Ure's readings with the rongorongo texts, they may yet have value for decipherment. The first two recitations, Apai and Atua Matariri, are not corrupted with Tahitian. The verses of Atua Matariri are of the form X ki ‘ai ki roto Y, ka pû te Z "X, by mounting into Y, let Z come forth",[8] and when taken literally, they appear to be nonsense:

"Moon, by mounting into Darkness, let Sun come forth" (verse 25),
"Killing, by mounting into Stingray, let Shark come forth" (verse 28),
"Stinging Fly, by mounting into Swarm, let Horsefly come forth" (verse 16).

Guy (1999b) notes that while these verses do not conform to Rapanui or other Polynesian creation mythology, which they are generally assumed to be, the phrasing is similar to the way compound Chinese characters are described. For example, the composition of 銅 may be described as "add 金 jīn to 同 tóng to make 銅 tóng" (meaning "add Metal to Together to make Copper"), which is also nonsense when taken literally.[9] He hypothesizes that the Atua Matariri chant which Ure had heard in his youth, although unconnected to the particular tablet that he recited it for, was a genuine rongorongo chant: A mnemonic that taught students how the glyphs were composed.

Fanciful decipherments[]

In 1892 the Australian pediatrician Alan Carroll published a fanciful translation, based on the idea that the texts were written by an extinct "Long-Ear" population of Easter Island in a diverse mixture of Quechua and other languages of Peru and Mesoamerica. Perhaps due to the cost of casting special type for rongorongo, no method, analysis, or sound values of the individual glyphs were ever published. Carroll continued to publish short communications until 1908 in Science of Man, the journal of the (Royal) Anthropological Society of Australasia. Carroll had himself founded the society, which is "nowadays seen as forming part of the 'lunatic fringe' " (Carter 2003).

In 1932 the Hungarian Vilmos Hevesy (Guillaume de Hevesy) published an article claiming a relationship between rongorongo and the newly discovered Indus Valley script, based on superficial similarities of form, which was presented to the French Academy of Inscriptions and Literature by the French Sinologist Paul Pelliot. As in Carroll's day, there was no easy way to typeset rongorongo or even to identify the glyphs under discussion, so it was not apparent that several of the rongorongo glyphs used in the comparisons were spurious. Despite the fact that both scripts were undeciphered (as they are to this day), separated by half the world and half of history (Plantilla:Convert/km and 4000 years), and had no known intermediate stages, Hevesy's ideas were taken seriously enough in academic circles to prompt a 1934 Franco–Belgian expedition to Easter Island led by Lavachery and Métraux (Métraux 1939). Hevesy's theories were published as late as 1938 in such respected anthropological journals as Man. However, there is no longer any mention of them in Métraux's 1940 Ethnology of Easter Island.

At least a score of decipherments have been claimed since then, none of which have been accepted by other rongorongo epigraphers (Pozdniakov 1996).[10] For instance, linguist Irina Fedorova (1995) published purported translations of the two St Petersburg tablets and portions of four others. More rigorous than most attempts, she restricts each glyph to a single logographic reading. However, the results make little sense as texts. For example, tablet P begins with,

he cut a rangi sugarcane, a tara yam, he cut lots of taro, of stalks (?), he cut a yam, he harvested, he cut a yam, he cut, he pulled up, he cut a honui, he cut a sugarcane, he cut, he harvested, he took, a kihi, he chose a kihi, he took a kihi … (Pr1)[11]

with each ligature translated as a phrase, and continues in this vein to the end:

he harvested a yam, a poporo, a calabash, he pulled up a yam, he cut, he cut one plant, he cut one plant, a yam, he cut a banana, he harvested a sugarcane, he cut a taro, he cut a kahu yam, a yam, a yam … (Pv11)[11]

The other texts are similar: The Mamari calendar produces,

a root, a root, a root, a root, a root, a root [that is, a lot of roots], a tuber, he took, he cut a potato tuber, he dug up some yam shoots, a yam tuber, a potato tuber, a tuber … (Cr7)[11]

which even Fedorova characterized as "worthy of a maniac" (Pozdniakov & Pozdniakov 2007:10).

Moreover, the allographs detected by Pozdniakov are given different readings, so that, for example, otherwise parallel texts repeatedly substitute the verb Archivo:RR 006.gif ma‘u "take" for the noun Archivo:RR 064.gif tonga "a kind of yam". As it was, Federova's catalog consisted of 130 glyphs; any additional allography would make the text even more repetitive. This is a problem with all attempts to read rongorongo as a logographic script (Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov 2007:11).

Many recent scholars (Pozdniakov 1996, Guy 1990–2001, Sproat 2003, Horley 2005, Berthin and Berthin 2006, etc.) are of the opinion that, while many researchers have made modest incremental contributions to the understanding of rongorongo, notably Kudrjavtsev et al., Butinov and Knorozov, and Thomas Barthel, none of the attempts at actual decipherment, such as those of Fedorova and Fischer, "are accompanied by the least justification" (Pozdniakov 1996:293).[12] All fail the key test of decipherment: a meaningful application to novel texts and patterns.


Archivo:Rongorongo Gr4.jpg

Compound 380.1.3 repeated three times on Gr4 (1st, 3rd, & 5th glyphs)

James Park Harrison (1874:379), a council member of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, noticed that lines Gr3–7 of the Small Santiago tablet featured a compound glyph, 380.1.3 Archivo:RR 380.pngArchivo:RR 01.pngArchivo:RR 03.png (a sitting figure 380 Archivo:RR 380.png holding a rod 1 Archivo:RR 01.png with a line of chevrons 3 Archivo:RR 03.png), repeated 31 times, each time followed by one to half a dozen glyphs before its next occurrence. He believed that this broke the text into sections containing the names of chiefs. Barthel later found this pattern on tablet K, which is a paraphrase of Gr (in many of the K sequences the compound is reduced to 380.1 Archivo:RR 380.pngArchivo:RR 01.png), as well as on A, where it sometimes appears as 380.1.3 and sometimes as 380.1; on C, E, and S as 380.1; and, with the variant 380.1.52 Archivo:RR 380.pngArchivo:RR 01.pngArchivo:RR 52.png, on N. He saw the sequence 380.1 Archivo:RR 380.pngArchivo:RR 01.png as a tangata rongorongo holding an inscribed staff like the Santiago Staff.

Kudrjavtsev et al.[]

During World War II, a small group of students in Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad), Boris Kudrjavtsev, Valeri Chernushkov, and Oleg Klitin, became interested in tablets P, and Q, which they saw on display at the Museum of Ethnology and Anthropology. They discovered that they bore, with minor variation, the same text, which they later found on tablet H as well:

Short excerpt of the parallel text on tablets H, P, and Q

Barthel would later call this the "Grand Tradition", though its contents remain unknown.

The group later noticed that tablet K was a close paraphrase of the the recto of G. Kudrjavtsev wrote up their findings, which were published posthumously (Kudrjavtsev 1949). Numerous other parallel, though shorter, sequences have since been identified in statistical analyses by Pozdniakov (1996), Sproat (2003), and Horley (2005), with texts N and R being composed almost entirely of phrases shared with other tablets, though not in the same order.

Identifying such shared phrasing was one of the first steps in unraveling the structure of the script, as it is the best way to detect ligatures and allographs, and thus to establish the inventory of rongorongo glyphs.

Archivo:Rongorongo ligatures.png
Ligatures: Parallel texts Pr4–5 (top) and Hr5 (bottom) show that a figure (blue) holding another glyph (red) in P may be fused into a ligature in H, where the second glyph replaces either the figure's head or its hand. Elsewhere, the figure may fuse with the preceding glyph while being reduced to a distinctive feature such as a head or arm. Here are also the two hand shapes (green) which were later established as allographs by Pozdniakov. Three of the four human and turtle figures on the left are ligatures with glyph 62 (yellow), which Pozdniakov found often marks a phrase boundary.

Butinov and Knorozov[]

Archivo:Rongorongo Gv6 genealogy.jpg

A section of Gv6, in the suspected genealogy

In 1957 the Russian epigraphers Nikolai Butinov and Yuri Knorozov suggested that the repetitive structure of a sequence of some fifteen glyphs on Gv5–6 (lines 5 and 6 of the verso of the Small Santiago Tablet) was compatible with a genealogy. It reads in part,

Archivo:Lineage on Gv6.png

Now, if the repeated independent glyph 200 (Archivo:RR 200.png, in red) is a title, such as "king", and if the repeated attached glyph 76 (Archivo:RR 76.png, in green) is a patronymic marker, then this means something like:

King A, B's son, King B, C's son, King C, D's son, King D, E's son,

and the sequence is a lineage.

Although no one has been able to confirm Butinov and Knorozov's hypothesis, it is widely considered plausible (Pozdniakov 1996, Berthin and Berthin 2006, Sproat 2007, etc.). If it is correct, then, first, we can identify other glyph sequences which constitute personal names. Second, the Santiago Staff would consist mostly of persons' names as it bears 564 occurrences of glyph 76, the putative patronymic marker, one fourth of the total 2320 glyphs. Third, the sequence 606.76 700, translated by Fischer as "all the birds copulated with the fish", would in reality mean (So-and-so) son of 606 was killed. The Santiago Staff, with 63 occurrences of glyph 700 Archivo:RR 700.png, a rebus for îka "victim", would then be in part a kohau îka (Guy 1998).


German ethnologist Thomas Barthel, who first published the rongorongo corpus, identified three lines on the recto (side a) of tablet C, also known as Mamari, as a lunar calendar (Barthel 1958:242ff). Guy (1990, 2001) proposed that it was more precisely an astronomical rule for whether one or two intercalary nights should be inserted into the 28-night Rapanui month to keep it in sync with the phases of the moon, and if one night, whether it should come before or after the full moon. Berthin and Berthin (2006) propose that it is the text after the identified calendar that shows where the intercalary nights should appear. The Mamari calendar is the only example of rongorongo whose function is currently accepted as being understood, though it cannot actually be read.

Archivo:Rongorongo C-a Mamari calendar.jpg

The Mamari calendar starts midway through recto line 6 (bottom center, upside down) and continues to the start of line 9 (top left). Two glyphs completing the purple sequence (dots) are not visible at the start of 7. Blue and pink beaded lozenges ("accounting sets") follow the identified calendar.

In Guy's interpretation, the core of the calendar is a series of 29 left-side crescents ("", colored red in the illustration at right) on either side of the full moon (Archivo:RR 152.png), a pictogram of te nuahine kā ‘umu ‘a rangi kotekote 'the old woman lighting an earth oven in the kotekote sky'—the Man in the Moon of Oceanic mythology. These correspond to the 28 basic and two intercalary nights of the old Rapa Nui lunar calendar.

The thirty nights are divided into eight groups, starting with the new moon, by a "heralding sequence" of four glyphs (colored purple in the image at right) which end in the pictogram of a fish on a line (yellow). The heralding sequences each contain two right-side lunar crescents (""). In all four heralding sequences preceding the full moon the fish is head up; in all four following it the fish is head down, suggesting the waxing and waning of the moon. The way the crescents are grouped together reflects the patterns of names in the old calendar. The two crescents at the end of the calendar, introduced with an expanded heralding sequence, represent the two intercalary nights held in reserve. The eleventh crescent, with the bulge, is where one of those nights is found in Thomson's and Métraux's records.

Guy notes that the further the Moon is from the Earth in its eccentric orbit, the slower it moves, and the more likely the need to resort to an intercalary night to keep the calendar in sync with its phases. He hypothesizes that the "heralding sequences" are instructions to observe the apparent diameter of the Moon, and that the half-size superscripted crescents preceding the sixth night before and sixth night aften the full moon (orange) represent the small apparent diameter at apogee which triggers intercalation. (The first small crescent corresponds to the position of hotu in Thomson and Métraux.)

Seven of the calendrical crescents (in red) are accompanied by other glyphs (in green). Guy suggests syllabic readings for some of these, based on possible rebuses and correspondences with the names of the nights in the old calendar.[13] The two sequences of six and five nights without such accompanying glyphs (beginning of line 7, and transition of lines 7–8) correspond to the two groups of six and five numbered kokore nights, which do not have individual names.

Berthin and Berthin (2006) broadly agree with Guy, and also see pictographs and rebuses in the calendar, but not a phonetic script. They noticed that the lines of chevrons which Guy analyzed as phonetic (the second green glyph, a double strand of seven chevrons, and the second green glyph from last, a single strand of six) correspond in number to the crescent they modify plus the number of unmarked kokore crescents which follow, at least in Barthel's tracings. In addition, they do not recognize the half-size superscripted crescents as being distinctive, proposing instead that it is the unusual sequence of stacked "accounting sets" of beaded lozenges in the three lines following Barthel's proposed calendar (blue and pink in the image above) which indicate where the intercalary days fall, with each lozenge ("") corresponding to a month, and the beads representing intercalary days: ◦◇, an intercalary day before the full moon; ◇◦, an intercalary day after the full moon; and ◦◇◦, two intercalary days. Similar patterns of beaded lozenges also occur on the verso of Mamari. However, no calendrical analysis has been done.


In 1995 independent linguist Steven Fischer announced that he had cracked the rongorongo code (Bahn 1996). In the decade since, this has not been accepted by other researchers, who feel that Fischer overstated the single pattern that formed the basis of his decipherment, and note that it has not led to an understanding of other patterns (Pozdniakov 1996, Guy 1998, Robinson 2002, Sproat 2003, Horley 2005, Berthin and Berthin 2006).


Fischer noticed that long text of the 1.25m Santiago Staff is unlike the other texts in that it appears to have punctuation: The 2,320-glyph text is divided by "103 vertical lines at odd intervals" which do not occur elsewhere. Fischer remarked that glyph 76 Archivo:RR 76.png, identified as a patronymic marker by Butinov & Knorozov, is attached to the first glyph in each section of text, and that "almost all" sections contain a multiple of three glyphs, with the first bearing a 76 "suffix".[14]

Fischer identified glyph 76 as a phallus and the text of the Santiago Staff as a creation chant consisting of hundreds of repetitions of X–phallus Y Z, which he interpreted as X copulated with Y, there issued forth Z. His primary example was this one:

Archivo:606 76-700-8.gif

about half-way through line 12 of the Santiago Staff. Fischer interpreted glyph 606 as "bird"+"hand", with the phallus attached as usual at its lower right; glyph 700 as "fish"; and glyph 8 as "sun".

On the basis that the Rapanui word ma‘u "to take" is nearly homophonous with a plural marker mau, he posited that the hand of 606 was that plural marker, via a semantic shift of "hand" → "take", and thus translated 606 as "all the birds". Taking penis to mean "copulate", he read the sequence 606.76 700 8 as "all the birds copulated, fish, sun".

Fischer supported his interpretation by claiming similarities to the recitation Atua Matariri,[4] so called from its first words, which was collected by William Thomson. This recitation is a litany where each verse has the form X, ki ‘ai ki roto ki Y, ka pû te Z, literally "X having been inside Y the Z comes forward". Here is the first verse, according to Salmon and then according to Métraux (neither of whom wrote glottal stops or long vowels):


Atua Matariri; Ki ai Kiroto, Kia Taporo, Kapu te Poporo.
"God Atua Matariri and goddess Taporo produced thistle."


Atua-matariri ki ai ki roto ki a te Poro, ka pu te poporo.
"God-of-the-angry-look by copulating with Roundness (?) produced the poporo (black nightshade, Solanum nigrum)."

Fischer proposed that the glyph sequence 606.76 700 8, literally MANU:MA‘U.‘AI ÎKA RA‘Â "bird:hand.penis fish sun", had a phonetic reading of:

te manu mau ki ‘ai ki roto ki te îka, ka pû te ra‘â
"All the birds copulated with the fish, there issued forth the sun."

He claimed similar phallic triplets for several other texts. However, in the majority of texts glyph 76 is not common, and Fischer proposed that these were a later, more developed stage of the script, where the creation chants had been abbreviated to omit the phallus. He concluded that 85% of the rongorongo corpus consisted of such creation chants, and that it was only a matter of time before rongorongo would be fully deciphered (1997a:107).


There are a number of objections to Fischer's approach:

  • When Andrew Robinson checked the claimed pattern (Robinson 2002:241), he found that "Close inspection of the Santiago Staff reveals that only 63 out of the 113 [sic] sequences on the staff fully obey the triad structure (and 63 is the maximum figure, giving every Fischer attribution the benefit of the doubt)." Glyph 76 Archivo:RR 76.png occurs sometimes in isolation, sometimes compounded with itself, and sometimes in the 'wrong' part (or even all parts) of the triplets.[14] Other than on the Staff, Pozdniakov (1996) could find Fischer's triplets only in the poorly preserved text of Ta and in the single line of Gv which Butinov and Knorozov suggested might be a genealogy.
  • Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov (2007:11) calculated that altogether Fischer's four glyphs make up 20% of the corpus. "Hence it is easy to find examples in which, on the contrary, 'the sun copulates with the fish', and sometimes also with the birds. Fischer does not mention the resulting chaos in which everything is copulating in all manner of unlikely combinations. Furthermore, it is by no means obvious in what sense this 'breakthrough' is 'phonetic'."
  • The plural marker mau does not exist in Rapanui, but is instead an element of Tahitian grammar. However, even if it did occur in Rapanui, Polynesian mau is only a plural marker when it precedes a noun; after a noun it's an adjective that means "true, genuine, proper" (Guy 1998).
  • No Polynesian myth tells of birds copulating with fish to produce the sun. Fischer (1997b:198) justifies his interpretation thus: This is very close to [verse] number 25 from Daniel Ure Va‘e Iko's procreation chant [Atua Matariri] "Land copulated with the fish Ruhi Paralyzer: There issued forth the sun." However, this claim depends on Salmon's English translation, which does not follow from his Rapanui transcription of
Heima; Ki ai Kiroto Kairui Kairui-Hakamarui Kapu te Raa.
Métraux (1940:321) gives the following interpretation of that verse:
He Hina [He ima?] ki ai ki roto kia Rui-haka-ma-rui, ka pu te raa.
"Moon (?) by copulating with Darkness (?) produced Sun",
which mentions neither birds nor fish. (Guy 1998)
  • Given Fischer's reading, Butinov & Knorozov's putative genealogy on tablet Gv becomes semantically odd, with several animate beings copulating with the same human figure to produce themselves (Guy 1998):
A copulated with B, there issued forth A
C copulated with B, there issued forth C
D copulated with B, there issued forth D[15]
  • Computational linguist Richard Sproat could not replicate the parallels Fischer claimed between the Santiago Staff and the other texts. He automated the search for string matches between the texts and found that the staff stood alone:
Sproat 2003


In the 1950s, Butinov and Knorozov had performed a statistical analysis of several rongorongo texts and had concluded that either the language of the texts was not Polynesian, or that it was written in a condensed telegraphic style, because it contained no glyphs comparable in frequency to Polynesian grammatical particles such as the Rapanui articles te and he or the preposition ki. These findings have since been used to argue that rongorongo is not a writing system at all, but mnemonic proto-writing, such as Naxi Dongba, which would in all likelihood be impossible to decipher. However, Butinov and Knorozov had used Barthel's preliminary encoding, which Konstantin Pozdniakov, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg, noted was inappropriate for statistical analysis. The problem, as Butinov and Knorozov, and Barthel himself, had admitted, was that in many cases distinct numerical codes had been assigned to ligatures and allographs, as if these were independent glyphs. The result was that while Barthel's numerical transcription of a text enabled a basic discussion of its contents for the first time, it failed to capture its linguistic structure and actually interfered with inter-text comparison. (Pozdniakov 1996:294; Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov 2007:5)

Revising the glyph inventory[]

To resolve this deficiency, Pozdniakov (1996) reanalyzed thirteen of the better preserved texts,[16] attempting to identify all ligatures and allographs in order to approach a one-to-one correspondence between graphemes and their numeric representation. He observed that all these texts but I and G verso consist predominantly of shared phrases (sequences of glyphs), which occur in different orders and contexts on different tablets. By 2007 he had identified some one hundred shared phrases, each between ten and one hundred glyphs long. Even setting aside the completely parallel texts Gr–K and the 'Grand Tradition' of H–P–Q, he found that half of the remainder comprises such phrases:

Archivo:Rongorongo common phrase.png
Phrasing: Variants of this twenty-glyph phrase, all missing some of these glyphs or adding others, are found twelve times, in eight of the thirteen texts Pozdniakov tabulated: lines Ab4, Cr2–3, Cv2, Cv12, Ev3, Ev6, Gr2–3, Hv12, Kr3, Ra6, Rb6, and Sa1. Among other things, such phrases have established or confirmed the reading order of some of the tablets.

These shared sequences begin and end with a notably restricted set of glyphs. For example, many begin or end, or both, with glyph 62 (an arm ending in a circle: Archivo:RR 62.png) or with a ligature where glyph 62 replaces the arm or wing of a figure (see the ligature image under Kudrjavtsev et al.).

Contrasting these phrases allowed Pozdniakov to determine that some glyphs occur in apparent free variation both in isolation and as components of ligatures. Thus he proposed that the two hand shapes, 6 (Archivo:RR 006.gif, three fingers and a thumb) and 64 (Archivo:RR 064.gif, a four-fingered forked hand), are variants of a single glyph, which also attaches to or replaces the arms of various other glyphs:

Allographs: The 'hand' allographs (left), plus some of the fifty pairs of allographic 'hand' ligatures that Barthel had assigned distinct character codes.

The fact the two hands appear to substitute for each other in all these pairs of glyphs when the repeated phrases are compared lends credence to their identity. Similarly, Pozdniakov proposed that the heads with "gaping mouths", as in glyph 380 Archivo:RR 380.png, are variants of the bird heads, so that the entirety of Barthel's 300 and 400 series of glyphs are seen as either ligatures or variants of the 600 series.

Despite finding that some of the forms Barthel had assumed were allographs appeared instead to be independent glyphs, such as the two forms of his glyph 27 (Archivo:RR 027.png), the overall conflation of allographs and ligatures greatly reduced the size of Barthel's published 600-glyph inventory. By recoding the texts with these findings and then recomparing them, Pozdniakov was able to detect twice as many shared phrases, which enabled him to further consolidate the inventory of glyphs. By 2007, he and his father, a pioneer in Russian computer science, had concluded that 52 glyphs accounted for 99.7% of the corpus. (The other 0.3% were made up of two dozen glyphs with limited distribution, many of them hapax legomena. This analysis excluded the Santiago Staff, which contained another three or four frequent glyphs.) From this he deduced that rongorongo is essentially a syllabary with possibly some logographs for common words (see below). The evidence, however, has not been published.

Pozdniakov's proposed basic inventory
Archivo:RR 01.png Archivo:RR 02.png Archivo:RR 03.png Archivo:RR 04.png Archivo:RR 05.png Archivo:RR 06.png Archivo:RR 07.png Archivo:RR 08.png Archivo:RR 09.png Archivo:RR 10.png Archivo:RR 14.png Archivo:RR 15.png Archivo:RR 16.png
01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 14 15 16
Archivo:RR 22.png Archivo:RR 25.png Archivo:RR 27.png Archivo:RR 28.png Archivo:RR 34.png Archivo:RR 38.png Archivo:RR 41.png Archivo:RR 44.png Archivo:RR 46.png Archivo:RR 47.png Archivo:RR 50.png Archivo:RR 52.png Archivo:RR 53.png
22 25 27 28 34 38 41 44 46 47 50 52 53
Archivo:RR 59.png Archivo:RR 60.png Archivo:RR 61.png Archivo:RR 62.png Archivo:RR 63.png Archivo:RR 66.png Archivo:RR 67.png Archivo:RR 69.png Archivo:RR 70.png Archivo:RR 71.png Archivo:RR 74.png Archivo:RR 76.png Archivo:RR 901.png
59 60 61 62 63 66 67 69 70 71 74 76 901
Archivo:RR 91.png Archivo:RR 95.png Archivo:RR 99.png Archivo:RR 200.png Archivo:RR 240.png Archivo:RR 280.png Archivo:RR 380.png Archivo:RR 400.png Archivo:RR 530.png Archivo:RR 660.png Archivo:RR 700.png Archivo:RR 720.png Archivo:RR 730.png
91 95 99 200 240 280 380 400 530 660 700 720 730
Glyph 901 Archivo:RR 901.png was first proposed by Pozdniakov. Although 99 Archivo:RR 99.png looks like a ligature of 95 Archivo:RR 95.png and 14 Archivo:RR 14.png, statistically it behaves like a separate glyph, rather as Latin Q and R do not behave as ligatures of O and P with an extra stroke, but as separate letters.

The shared repetitive nature of the phrasing of the texts, apart from Gv and I, suggests to Pozdniakov that these are not integral texts, and cannot contain the varied contents that would be required for history or mythology.

Statistical evidence[]

With a rigorously derived inventory, Pozdniakov was able to test his ideas about the nature of the script. He tabulated the frequency distributions of glyphs in ten texts (excluding the divergent Santiago Staff) and found that they coincided with the distribution of syllables in ten archaic Rapanui texts such as the Apai recitation, with nearly identical deviations from an ideal Zipfian distribution. He took this as evidence both for rongorongo being essentially syllabic and for its being consistent with the Rapanui language.[17] For example, the most common glyph, 6, and the most common syllable, /a/, both make up 10% of their corpora; the syllables te and he, which Butinov and Knorozov found so problematic, could at 5.7% and 3.5% be associated with any number of common rongorongo glyphs.

In addition, the numbers of glyphs that are linked or fused together closely match the numbers of syllables in Rapanui words, both in the texts overall and in their respective lexicons, suggesting that each combination of glyphs represents a word:

Distribution of words and ligatures by size
Syllables per word;
Glyphs per ligature
Full texts Lexicon
Rapanui Rongorongo Rapanui Rongorongo
(n = 6847) (n = 6779) (n = 1047) (n = 1461)
one 42% 45% 3.7% 3.5%
two 36% 32% 40% 35%
three 15% 18% 33% 41%
four or more 7.1% 5.2% 23% 21%
(average) 1.9 syllables 1.9 glyphs 2.8 syllables 2.8 glyphs

In both corpora there were many more monosyllables/single glyphs in running text than in the lexicon. That is, in both a relatively small number of such forms are very frequent, suggesting that rongorongo is compatible with Rapanui, which has a small number of very frequent monosyllabic grammatical particles. Rongorongo and Rapanui are also almost identical in the proportion of syllables/glyphs found in isolation and in initial, medial, and final position within a word/ligature (not shown).

However, while such statistical tests demonstrate that rongorongo is consistent with a syllabic Rapanui script, syllables are not the only thing which can produce this result. In the Rapanui texts, some two dozen common polysyllabic words, such as ariki 'leader', ingoa 'name', and rua 'two', have the same frequency as a score of syllables, while other syllables such as /tu/ are less frequent than these words.

This suspicion that rongorongo may not be fully syllabic is supported by positional patterns within the texts. The distributions of Rapanui syllables within polysyllabic words and of rongorongo glyphs within ligatures are very similar, strengthening the syllabic connection. However, monosyllabic words and isolated glyphs behave very differently; here rongorongo does not look at all syllabic. For example, all glyphs but 901 Archivo:RR 901.png are attested in isolation, whereas only half of the 55 Rapanui syllables occur as monosyllabic words. Furthermore, among those syllables which do occur in isolation, their rate of doing so is much lower than that of the glyphs: Only three syllables, /te/, /he/, and /ki/, occur more than half the time in isolation (as grammatical particles), whereas a score of glyphs are more commonly found in isolation than not. Contextual analysis may help explain this: Whereas Rapanui monosyllables are grammatical particles and generally precede polysyllabic nouns and verbs, so that monosyllables rarely occur together, isolated rongorongo glyphs are usually found together, suggesting a very different function. Pozdniakov hypothesizes that the difference may be due to the presence of determinatives, or that glyphs have dual functions, as phonograms in combination but as logograms in isolation. On the other hand, no glyph approaches the frequency, when in isolation, of the articles te and he or the preposition ki in running text. It may be that these particles were simply not written, but Pozdniakov suspects that they were written together with the following word, as is the case with Arabic.

Further complicating the picture are the patterns of repetition. There are two types of repetition in Rapanui words: double syllables within roots, as in mamari, and grammatical reduplication of disyllables, such as rongorongo. In the Rapanui lexicon, double syllables are 50% more likely than chance can explain. However, in rongorongo, double glyphs are only 8% more likely than chance. Similarly, in the Rapanui lexicon reduplicated disyllables are seven times as common as chance, constituting a quarter of the vocabulary, whereas in rongorongo they are only twice as likely, and 10% of the vocabulary. If rongorongo is a phonetic script, therefore, this discrepancy needs to be explained. Pozdniakov suggests that perhaps there was a 'reduplicator' glyph, or that modifications of glyphs, such as facing heads to the left rather than to the right, may have indicated repetition.

Sound values[]

The results of statistical analysis will be strongly affected by any errors in identifying the inventory of glyphs, as well as by divergence from a purely syllabic representation, such as a glyph for reduplication. There are also large differences in the frequencies of individual syllables among the Rapanui texts, which makes any direct identification problematic. While Pozdniakov has not been able to assign any phonetic values with any certainty, statistical results do place constraints on which values are possible.

One possibility for a logogram of the most common word in Rapanui, the article te, is the most common glyph, 200 Archivo:RR 200.png, which doesn't pattern like a phonogram. Glyph 200 occurs mostly in initial position and is more frequent in running text than any syllable in the Rapanui lexicon, both characteristics of the article. A possibility for a reduplicator glyph is 3 Archivo:RR 03.png, which is also very common and does not pattern like a phonogram, but occurs predominantly in final position.

Because a repeated word or phrase may skew the results from an individual text, phonetic frequencies are best compared using the lexicons of those texts. Three correlations may help narrow down the possibilities for phonograms: Position within the word/ligature, overall frequency, and patterns of doubling and reduplication. The relative frequencies of glyphs in initial, medial, and final position in a ligature constrain their possible sound values to syllables with similar distributions. Syllables beginning with ng, for example, are more common at the ends of words than at the beginnings. The other correlations seem to associate vocalic syllables with arm glyphs:

  • Overall frequency. Syllables without a consonant (vocalic syllables) are more common in Rapanui than syllables beginning with any of the ten consonants. Of the vowels, /a/ is more than twice as frequent as any of the others. Thus the syllables that comprise more than 3% of the Rapanui lexicon are /i/, /e/, /a/, /o/, /u/; /ta/, /ra/, /ka/, /na/, /ma/; and /ri/. (The three most common, the vocalic syllables /a/, /i/, /u/, comprise a full quarter of the corpus.) The glyphs that comprise more than 3% of the rongorongo corpus are, in order, 200, 6, 10, 3, 62, 400, 61. As noted above, 200 and 3 do not pattern as phonograms. Of the remaining five, four are arms or wings.
  • Reduplication. In grammatical reduplication, vowels are also the most common syllables; so are the glyphs 6, 10, 61, 62, 901, all arms or wings.
  • Doubling. Among doubled syllables, however, vocalic syllables are much less common. Four syllables, /i/, /a/, /u/, /ma/, are less commonly doubled than chance would dictate. Three glyphs are less common when doubled than chance as well: 6, 10, and 63, two of them arms or wings.
Potential vocalic syllables
Most frequent Archivo:RR 06.png Archivo:RR 10.png Archivo:RR 62.png Archivo:RR 400.png Archivo:RR 61.png
Most reduplicated Archivo:RR 06.png Archivo:RR 10.png Archivo:RR 61.png Archivo:RR 62.png Archivo:RR 901.png
Least doubled Archivo:RR 06.png Archivo:RR 10.png Archivo:RR 63.png
Sound value? /a/? /i/?

The exceptionally high frequencies of glyph 6 and of the syllable /a/, everywhere except when doubled, suggest that glyph 6 may have the sound value /a/. Pozdniakov proposes with less certainty that the second most extreme glyph, 10, might have the sound value /i/.


As Pozdniakov readily admits, his analysis is highly sensitive to the accuracy of the glyph inventory. Since he has not published the details of how he established this inventory, it is not possible for others to verify his work.

There has been little response to Pozdniakov's approach. However, Sproat (2007) believes that the results from the frequency distributions are nothing more than an effect of Zipf's law, and that neither rongorongo nor the old texts were representative of the language, so that a comparison is unlikely to be enlightening.


  1. For example, Comrie et al. (1996:100) say, "It was probably used as a memory aid or for decorative purposes, not for recording the Rapanui language of the islanders."
  2. See the Jaussen list at the Easter Island Home Page.
  3. "pure: concha marina (Cypraea caput draconis)" [pure: a sea shell (Cypraea caputdraconis)]
  4. 4,0 4,1 The texts can be accessed here: Apai; Atua Matariri (Salmon translation), Atua Matariri (Métraux translation); Eaha to ran ariiki Kete; Ka ihi uiga; Ate-a-renga-hokau iti poheraa.
  5. 5,0 5,1 These plates may have been misattributed in the published article for tablets A and B, as R and S were the tablets that had just been obtained by Thomson on Easter Island, whereas he writes that Ure Va‘e Iko had read from the photographs of the tablets then in Tahiti, which were A through E.
  6. In Tahitian orthography, these are te reva farāni and hōro‘a moni e fa‘ahiti. Note that moni comes from English money,[1] and that /f/ does not exist in the Rapanui language. Fischer says (1997a:101):

    Ure's so-called "Love Song" (Thomson, 1891:526), though an interesting example of a typical popular song on Rapanui in the 1880s, among Routledge's informants nearly 30 years later "was laughed out of court as being merely a love-song which everyone knew" (Routledge, 1919:248). Once again Ure's text dismisses itself because of its recent Tahitianisms: te riva forani, moni, and fahiti.

  7. "Finally [Ure] took to the hills with the determination to remain in hiding until after the departure of the Mohican. [U]nscrupulous strategy was the only resource after fair means had failed. [When he] sought the shelter of his own home on [a] rough night [we] took charge of the establishment. When he found escape impossible he became sullen, and refused to look at or touch a tablet [but agreed to] relate some of the ancient traditions. [C]ertain stimulants that had been provided for such an emergency were produced, and […] as the night grew old and the narrator weary, he was included as the "cup that cheers" made its occasional rounds. [A]t an auspicious moment the photographs of the tablets owned by the bishop were produced for inspection. […] The photographs were recognized immediately, and the appropriate legend related with fluency and without hesitation from beginning to end."
  8. Métraux's translation is "X by copulating with Y produced Z". However, Guy (1999b) notes that, according to Englert (1993), the particle ka which Métraux took to be the past tense on produced is actually the imperative (the particle for past tense is ku); the phrase ki roto means "into" rather than "with"; and the verb ‘ai is transitive (coito, hacer coito los animales. [Es expresión grosera.] "coitus, for animals to have coitus [A rude expression.]"), so that the formula X ki ‘ai ki roto Y, ka pû te Z would be better translated as X, by mounting into Y, let Z come forth.
  9. A nice example of a superficially nonsensical Chinese mnemonic is illustrated at biangbiang noodles.
  10. Besides Fedorova and Fischer, who are discussed here, these include José Imbelloni, Barry Fell [2], Egbert Richter-Ushanas [3], Andis Kaulins [4], Michael H. Dietrich [5], Lorena Bettocchi [6] (a "semantic interpretation" rather than a decipherment), Sergei V. Rjabchikov [7].
  11. 11,0 11,1 11,2 As translated by Pozdniakov (1996):
    Pr1: coupé canne à sucre rangi, igname tara, beaucoup coupé taro, des tiges (?), coupé igname, récolté, coupé igname, coupé, tiré, coupé honui, coupé canne à sucre, coupé, récolté, pris, kihi, choisi kihi, pris kihi
    Pv11: récolté igname, poporo, gourde, tiré igname, coupé, coupé une plante, coupé une plante, igname, coupé banane, récolté canne à sucre, coupé taro, coupé igname kahu, igname, igname, igname…
    Ca7: racine, racine, racine, racine, racine, racine (c'est-à-dire beaucoup de racines), tubercule, pris, coupé tubercule de patate, déterré des pousses d'igname, tubercule d'igname, tubercule de patate, tubercule, …
  12. [I]ls ne sont pas accompagnés de la moindre justification.
  13. For a glyph-by-glyph analysis as of 1998, including proposed rebuses and phonetic readings, see Guy's The Lunar Calendar of Tablet Mamari.
  14. 14,0 14,1 See for example figure 2 of Fischer's on-line article, the start of line I5 (Fischer's line 8), where vertical bars delineate some of his X-Y-Z triplets:
    | X.76 Y Z X.76 Y Z A A | X.76 Y Z | X.76 Y Z | X.76 Y Z X.76 Y Z X.76 Y Z | X.76 Y Z X.76(?) Y Z X.76 Y Z | X.76 Y Z | X.76 Y Z X.76 Y Z X.76 Y Z Z | X.76 Y Z | X.76 Y |,
    but which then continues with
    | X.76 76 Z.76 A B X.76 76 Z.76 |, etc.
    This has been truncated in the figure but can be seen in the complete text.
  15. Fischer was familiar with Butinov and Knorozov's article, and describes their contribution as "a milestone in rongorongo studies" (Fischer 1997a:198). Yet he dismisses their hypothesis thus: "Unfortunately, [Butinov's] proof for this claim consisted again, as in 1956, of the "genealogy" that Butinov believed is inscribed on the verso of the "Small Santiago Tablet" [tablet Gv]. In actual fact, this text appears instead to be a procreation chant whose X1YZ structure radically differs from what Butinov has segmented for this text."
  16. Pozdniakov did not tabulate the short texts J, L, X; the fragments F, W, Y; the partially obliterated texts M, O, TV, Z; or tablet D, though he did identify some sequences shared with Y and discussed possible reading orders of D.
  17. The relative distribution of glyphs depends on the type of script. For example, a logographic script will have a very marked difference in frequency between lexical words and grammatical words such as the ubiquitous Rapanui article te, while a syllabary will have a less skewed distribution, and an alphabet will be even less skewed. However, this could be complicated by rongorongo being written in a condensed telegraphic style, with such grammatical words omitted, perhaps due to a shortage of wood on the island. Pozdniakov (1996:302) also compared the distributions with "several other languages", and found these did not match rongorongo: le calcul des fréquences dans plusieurs autres langues montre des distributions très différentes de celle qui est typique de l'écriture pascuane.


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Plantilla:Cite conference
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