Did the People of Easter Island Invent a Writing System From Scratch?

Radiocarbon dating has found that a tablet inscribed with the mysterious rongorongo script predates European contact

Tablet Lead
Today, the rongorongo script survives on less than 30 objects. INSCRIBE ERC Project / Silvia Ferrara

New research has revealed that a wooden tablet from Rapa Nui—also known as Easter Island—inscribed with mysterious glyphs was likely created before the Europeans’ arrival, meaning the script may be one of history’s rare independently invented writing systems.

Rapa Nui is best known for its moai, the large-scale stone statues that mystified the Europeans who arrived in the 18th century. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that Europeans took note of another significant invention: a system of writing known as “rongorongo” script. In 1864, the missionary Eugene Eyraud described the island’s many “wooden tablets or staffs covered with sorts of hieroglyphic characters.”

The rongorongo script is shrouded in mystery. Only some two dozen artifacts featuring it survive today, and they’re held by institutions all over the world (including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History).

Tablet Example
The research team tested samples from four rongorongo tablets housed in Rome. INSCRIBE ERC Project / Silvia Ferrara

Recently, researchers performed radiocarbon testing on four artifacts held by a Catholic convent in Rome. They found that three date to the 18th or 19th centuries, but the fourth dates to between 1493 and 1509—over 200 years before Europeans arrived on Rapa Nui, according to a study published this month in the journal Scientific Reports.

Lead author Silvia Ferrara, a philologist at the University of Bologna in Italy, tells Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe that her team’s research suggests that Rapa Nui islanders invented rongorongo independently, without influence or inspiration from European writing systems. This notion is bolstered by the fact that rongorongo glyphs bear no resemblance to European letters. “Historically speaking,” says Ferrara, “if you borrow a writing system, then you keep it as close to the original as possible.”

The 15th-century tablet appears to come from a species of tree that isn’t native to Rapa Nui. The team thinks it was probably a piece of driftwood, which “raises questions about the island’s ecological past,” as Arkeonews’ Leman Altuntaş writes.

Tablet Second Example
Three of the tablets were made with wood from trees felled in the 18th or 19th centuries, while one was created with wood from a tree felled in the 15th century. INSCRIBE ERC Project / Silvia Ferrara

There is a chance that the tablet was already “old wood” when islanders inscribed it with rongorongo, Ferrara tells Live Science. Still, she thinks that possibility is unlikely, as it would mean the wood had been stored for over 200 years before being used.

While researchers have been examining rongorongo for a century and a half, the script has never been deciphered. “What makes rongorongo so difficult is that we do not know what sort of script it is,” wrote Alexander Lee for History Today last year. “No one is quite sure whether it is a form of proto-writing, or a fully-fledged writing system. If the former, are the glyphs pictograms (designed to be read like panels in a comic strip) or mnemonic ‘cues,’ each triggering a different memory?”

As Atlas Obscura’s Shafik Meghji wrote in 2021, the rongorongo script was likely only used by elites. By the 19th century, as the population sharply declined, knowledge of the script vanished entirely.

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Though the new research doesn’t aid translating efforts, it does shed new light on the script’s age and origins. Previously, only two rongorongo artifacts from the 19th century had been dated.

Rafal Wieczorek, a chemist at the University of Warsaw who has studied rongorongo tablets but was not involved in the recent study, tells Live Science that the results are “a great development.”

“I actually believe that rongorongo is one of the very few independent inventions of writing in human history, like the writing of the Sumerians, the Egyptians and the Chinese,” he says. “But belief is a different thing than hard data … so ideally, we would like to test all the tablets.”

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