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Reviewed by:
  • Rongorongo: The Easter Island Script; History, Traditions, Texts
  • Gary N. Kanada
Steven Roger Fischer . 1997. Rongorongo: The Easter Island Script; History, Traditions, Texts. Oxford Studies in Anthropological Linguistics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, xix, 714 pp., figures, notes, glossary, references, index. $175, cloth.

The book under review is in three parts: History, Traditions, and Texts. The author, Steven Roger Fischer (F), has compiled a comprehensive and definitive magnum opus for those researching the 25 surviving rongorongo inscriptions of Rapanui, the earliest and only known pre-twentieth-century writing system in Oceania. It took the author more than six years of full-time research spanning the globe to complete this immense work. The saga of F's epic (and expensive) journey to study the rongorongo, as well as his equally important decipherment of the Phaistos Disk, can be read about in his book Glyphbreaker (Fischer 1997). To fully appreciate the scope of this monograph, one must understand that a work like this has never been attemped before, perhaps because the linguistic skills needed are beyond most people, requiring besides Rapanui, English, German, Russian, Spanish, and French, proficiency in several other Polynesian and European languages. This, not to mention the fact that most of the necessary artifacts are scattered all over the world, has been a major stumbling block for any would-be scholar in the field. F also includes the previously unpublished rongorongo data of British ethnologist Katherine Pease Routledge, as well as, and no less importantly, his own views and evidence in determining the origin, age, and interpretation of the inscriptions. This monograph attempts to answer three underlying questions: What are the rongorongo inscriptions? How and when did they originate? What do they say? F also addresses two further graphic elaborations: the ta'u, a rongorongo derivative from the 1880s; and the mama or va'eva'e, an early twentieth-century geometric invention. The Polynesianist will also appreciate the author's consistent use of the macron to indicate vowel length, as well as the single opening quotation mark to indicate the glottal stop. What follows is a very brief summary of each of the parts as presented by F.

Part I. History.

The first 263 pages are devoted to describing the colorful history of the rongorongo, beginning with the arrival of the Spanish at Rapanui in 1770, marking the first time the inhabitants probably ever witnessed, or attempted writing by, their "signatures."1 At the very least, that the symbols used are not duplicated in the rongorongo is the strongest evidence that they were simply imitating the Spaniards writing, and not providing an example of an existing indigenous script. This date then establishes the earliest attempt at writing, providing the framework for the time from which the rongorongo probably originated. F further dispels scholarly myths that perpetuate the belief that many or all of the rongorongo [End Page 199] experts were carried away into slavery during the devastating 1862-1863 labor raids by a small group of international entrepreneurs operating out of Peru. In fact, many of these experts and their disciples probably escaped the raids and ensuing pandemics that wiped out approximately 94 percent of the island population. This conclusion is reached by evidence that shows informants alive and well, well after the "Great Death." Although much information about the rongorongo apparently was lost in the process, this cultural vacuum was evidently filled at this time by the development of the ta'u "script."

Easter Island's first non-Rapanui resident, Frenchman Joseph-Eugène Eyraud (1820-1868), was the first to describe the existence of the rongorongo in 1864, at which time he is said to have witnessed them in "all the houses" of the island. However, within a couple of years all but a handful were gone. The question then is, what became of all the rongorongo? According to F, most of them probably met their demise during the burning of the dwellings where they were kept (after depopulation from the labor raids and the smallpox epidemic) in the unrest of 1864-1865. Very few, then, were intentionally burned by any of the Rapanui through misunderstood Christian zeal; neither were any of the missionaries to blame for...


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