Easter Island, a remote volcanic island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, is renowned for being a land of mystery.
Since it was discovered by Europeans on Easter Sunday, 1722, Easter Island has exuded an almost magnetic charm, enchanting the explorers, scholars and missionaries who visited in the decades and centuries that followed. After all, the island’s inhabitants lived in one of the loneliest spots in the world, with the island’s closest inhabited neighbour, the Juan Fernandez Islands, lying 1,150 miles to the east, and the coast of Chile some 2,300 miles away. 1 Despite such isolation, the tribespeople of Easter Island had managed to build not merely a prosperous society, but one with capabilities far out-reaching those comprehensible by both 18th century and present-day scientists.
Easter Island is most famous being home to around 900 monumental stone figures called moai, which were carved any time between the 12th and 17th centuries AD by the indigenous Rapa Nui people. 2 Yet, it is the so-called “talking boards” of Easter Island which present greater intellectual excitement for many scientists.
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What are the “talking boards” of Easter Island?
The “talking boards” are a series of wooden tablets covered with glyphs of what is thought to be an unknown language. These remarkable treasures were not discovered until about a century and a half after Europeans first landed on the island. It was Father Eugène Eyraud, a French missionary, who was the first to notice the boards, when he observed islanders using the artefacts to build their canoes and as firewood. By the time a salvage operation began, only twenty-one tablets remained. 3
The surviving glyphs included both pictographic and geometric shapes. Some images appear to depict humans, plants and animals. 4
With no evidence of a historical written language on neighbouring islands, the talking boards represented something of enormous and rare historical significance: a written language which had developed independent of other linguistic influences. 5 However, deciphering the tablets turned out to be far from straight-forward. When Father Eyraud set out to record his discovery in the 1860s, he could find no one on the island able to translate the boards. Easter Island’s culture was in decline. In 1862, slave-hunters from South America had kidnapped or killed the island’s ruling families, leaving behind no one able to read the inscriptions. 6
By the end of the century, rongorongo, as the language is now known, was a dead, indecipherable script. 7
Attempts at translating the “talking boards”
In the years since, many scholars have worked to untangle the enigma of the talking boards.
Some linguists have dismissed the markings as cloth-printing designs, whilst others have stated that written language on Easter Island couldn’t possibly predate European contact, and must have only developed after Spain claimed the island in 1770.8
Egyptian hieroglyphics and the rock paintings of Australian aborigines have also been unsuccessfully turned to in attempts to find a connection and thus decipher the tablets. 9
Despite numerous attempts by many scholars, the surviving texts have still not been deciphered. If the tablets are indeed examples of written language, the glyphs are wholly unique to Easter Island.
It is possible that these mysterious talking boards hold many secrets of an advanced Easter Island civilisation, of their language, culture and incredible engineering ability. Yet, with such a small, surviving sample, it is unlikely that any major breakthrough will be made in the future, leaving science in the dark.
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