Sunday, January 28, 2018

The end of written language on Easter Island

In the 1870s, a French rancher, Jean-Baptiste Doutrou-Bornier, attempted to purchase the entire island. A megalomaniac and a sadist, he nearly succeeded. He drove off Catholic missionaries with fire, surrounded himself with kidnapped consorts, and declared himself a king. After a few years, he owned 80 percent of the island’s land and over four thousand sheep. A year later, he was killed in an ambush. Other pirates came to take his place.


It was in the midst of this disaster that the world became aware of rongorongo. In 1864, Joseph-Eugène Eyraud, a member of the Catholic mission on the island, noticed in all the houses tablets and staffs inscribed in an unknown script. He did not succeed in learning what it expressed. Curiously, no previous visitor to the island had ever observed them, perhaps because of a taboo. Four years later, the bishop of Tahiti, Florentin-Étienne Jaussen, received a piece of polished rosewood, wrapped in human hair, from one of his parishioners, a Rapanui convert. He was amazed to discover that it was covered in an unknown form of hieroglyphs. He immediately wrote to the Catholic mission on the island, asking them to search for more examples of the unknown script. They were only able to turn up a few. One man questioned by the bishop confessed “that there was nobody left on the island who knew how to read the characters since the Peruvians had brought about the deaths of all the wise men.” The tablets had thus lost all their potency. In the absence of literacy, the tablets, once objects of sacred power, became simply pieces of wood. They were burned for heat and used as reels for fishing lines.