Easter Island’s rongorongo glyphs

by Paul Horley & Georgia Lee


Rongorongo is the only known systemized “writing” in Polynesia. It consists of glyphs carved into wood tablets and artifacts such as rei-miro and tangata manu carved figures. Only twenty-four authentic inscribed objects from Easter Island survive in museums today. Still undeciphered, rongorongo continues to be a subject of international debate (Davis-Drake 1988:5; Fischer 1997).

Sacred chants, incantations, and genealogies were important throughout Polynesia and they had to be recited precisely in order to achieve the desired effect. Accordingly, priest-chanters on Easter Island used rongorongo tablets as mnemonic devices. The figures and the order in which they were carved helped priests to remember which chant had to follow a preceding chant. These tablets likely were related to the chanting staves used in Mangareva and the Marquesas.

Métraux (1974:209) describes rongorongo as “… a conventional system of recording communicable traditions … (it) is more evolved than mere pictography and contains ideograms with fixed and variable meanings, different levels of symbolism, and word signs that can be used for noting names.”

Emory (1972:63) speculated that Easter Island’s script was the result of writing seen by the islanders after contact: “No archaeological evidence has been produced which would indicate the existence of the script on Easter Island before 1770. It does not appear on facings of the ahu, on the sides of the caves at the ‘Orongo cult center or on any of the statues.” Emory, however, was apparently unaware of the island’s corpus of rock art designs that correspond to rongorongo figures. A concordance between the petroglyphs and the designs carved on wooden tablets was also noted by Métraux (1974:198). The fact that similar motifs in the rock art are paralleled in rongorongo boards, as well as the numerous legends that deal with these “talking boards,” likely is evidence for some antiquity of the script.

Placement of rongorongo glyphs

The glyphs on the tablets are usually so placed to optimize the usage of space – that is, fishes and birds are shown “standing” on their tails, the rei miro sign is shown sideways, and so on. To address the individual signs, the figures use the nomenclature proposed by Barthel (1958): the inscribed artifacts are denoted with a capital letter [A for the tablet  Tahua, Congregation of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, Rome; I for the Santiago Staff, National Museum of Natural History, Santiago; L for the small inscribed rei miro, British Museum, London; S for the Large Washington tablet, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., and so on. The lowercase letters denote the side: “a” or “b” when it is unclear from which side the reading begins. For tablets with their initial line determined beyond doubt, the sides are addressed with “r” (recto) and “v” (verso). The number following the letter combination identifies the line in which the illustrated glyph can be found. In discussion, signs are grouped according to their subject.]

Rongorongo and rock art

Many of the petroglyph motifs at the famous ceremonial site of ‘Orongo are the same as those carved on the small wooden rongorongo boards. This is not surprising for we know from the ethnographies that rongorongo priests lived at this site, chanting and praying, and probably making rock carvings also. Both the birdman (including manupiri) and frigate bird petroglyphs appear with great frequency on rongorongo tablets. Other designs in the rock art that are seen on the tablets are rei miro, vulva signs (komari), and anthropomorphic figures with pointed heads and prominent ears.

Another well-known site, Tongariki, has petroglyphs that are also seen on rongorongo boards. A petroglyph embedded into the seawall at Ahu NauNau on the north coast at ‘Anakena bears a likeness to rongorongo figures.

Other anthropomorphic (or mythical) creatures with elongated bodies are found north of Ava o Kiri and on a boulder at the sea wall of Ahu Iho Arero; these also have their counterparts in rongorongo.

Bird motifs display a considerable variety of designs. Among these is the generic rongorongo bird, easily identifiable with petroglyphs of a frigate bird, makohe, with its stylized beak and with a small hook at the end. This bird, shown in a diving stance, appears in both rock art and the script. The motif always shows both wings half-folded, while in rongorongo (in the majority of cases) only one wing is shown as half-folded.

The ubiquitous Polynesian chicken appears only a few times in the rock art, most notably at Papa Hakanini Mako‘i and some panels inland from Ahu Ra‘ai). Chickens are far more frequent in rongorongo where the forked tail resembles a stylized hand shape. The tern, the bird of choice for the birdman ceremony, appears in rock art with a straight pointed beak characteristic of the sooty tern, manutara. A few rock carvings show the beak turned slightly upwards, which is the generic beak shape seen in a rongorongo. Such discrepancy can be explained either by stylization of the signs carved on the tablets or by the fact that a bird, different from a manutara, was used as a model for rongorongo signs. The latter may be the case, for the upturned beak can be found in the white tern, kia kia  that also nests on Motu Nui.

Both the rock art and rongorongo include another curious design: a bird with a long neck that is bent downwards and with a long beak that may be pointed or have a small hook at its end. The bird may have its head bent backwards, similar to rongorongo signs showing a creature with a bent neck and gaping mouth. At times, the long-neck birds have two symmetrical heads, similar to that carved on a fallen topknot at Ahu Akahanga. It is not clear which kind of species of bird is indicated. Métraux (1940:411, Sign 96) speculated that it represents a kind of pelican but they are unknown on Easter Island. However, studies of bird bones found in excavations at Ahu Nau Nau revealed a clue: in the past, the land birds of the island included a species of heron (Steadman 1995:1124,1126. Even today egrets are occasionally seen on the island (Jaramillo et al, 2008:17, 19). Thus it may be that the long-neck birds in rongorongo and rock art portray the now-extinct heron.

The intensive bird breeding on the islet of Motu Nui is reflected in numerous petroglyphs in that islet’s caves. One of them shows a bird-head on an elongated body and surrounded by short lines, perhaps representing a hatchling (Steiner 2013-14:340); a similar glyph is known in rongorongo. The nesting of the birds is a very noisy event and cries of the manutara were said to be deafening. One of the caves on the islet has a petroglyph of a bird with wave-like patterns coming from its beak; a similar design is on a stone collected by the Métraux-Lavachery expedition in the 1930s; it is now in the collection of the Musée du quai Branly (Paris). A remarkable detail of the carving is that of a human leg attached to a bird body; a similar glyph also appears on an inscribed tablet.

Birdman ceremonies were of importance in the late period of Rapa Nui’s history. Surprisingly, the classical birdman design is virtually absent from rongorongo. The only example is on the tablet Aruku Jurenga (Fig. 4.138, Br7). It however, is different: it has a head with a gaping mouth, not a bird beak. The posture of the figure seems to indicate a man in the process of eating, “l’homme qui mange” (Jaussen 1893:269).

It is likely that the birdman design as seen on the rongorongo tablets  became simplified over time. The “classic” motif shows a crouched figure in profile, often holding an egg in its hand. But smaller and simpler designs may show the hand and egg as an arm with a rounded extremity. Similar hand shapes appear in rongorongo but show the figures as back-to-back .

Early birdman motifs sometimes include confusing details such as a set of short lines as radiating from the head (maybe an allusion to a feather crown?). Face-masks of Makemake with their round eyes and short nose are virtually absent from rongorongo; more frequently we see a birdman superimposed by a Makemake face mask. “Splayed” birdmen also have a counterpart in rongorongo.

Depictions of objects of material culture are considerably rare in rock art. The ceremonial paddle (ao), carved on a rock inside a house at Mata Ngarau features elaborate face and ear adornments. In rongorongo, there is a glyph apparently depicting a ceremonial paddle with a thin band added to mark a feather crown adorning the upper blade. In one instance, the upper blade of the design depicting an ao has short lines that may be a simplified depiction of a feather crown.

Rei miro petroglyphs are known from several sites, including Mata Ngarau. They are carved horizontally, reflecting the way they were worn. In rongorongo, the sign for rei miro is rare and is shown sideways, probably to save space. Wood pendants, tahonga, are very rare in the rock art but on the tablets there is a sign that probably depicts one.

Several depictions of adzes are known from Vai Atare and Ana o Keke and, in rongorongo, there is a glyph that looks like a hafted adze. A design from Hanga Ohio shows a bird head attached to a long elliptic body, possibly a variation of a paoa with a bird head. A similar glyph can be found on the Santiago Staff. The fishhook, prominent on carved panels by the northern shore, is nearly absent from rongorongo. Two instances on the Mamari and the Large Washington tablets are illustrated in Figure 4:138.

Fishing was of special importance in Polynesia and its impact on Rapanui culture can be seen through the numerous names of local fishes. Petroglyphs of fish are also abundant although they may not be accurate enough to identify the species. Sharks are rarely  shown in rock art but, when they are, they are in profile with the distinctive fin and tail pattern. In rongorongo, shark glyphs are shown from the underside and the tail may be outstretched or curved near the body. The head may be shown in profile with an open mouth.

A flat rock near Papa te Kena exhibits what may be a moray eel,            koha. One motif shows an eel body with a gaping mouth, common in rongorongo. Another has two eels joined by their tails, also known from the tablets. The notion of fishing could have been conveyed by carving a fish on a line, as at Ava o Kiri. In the rongorongo script there are miniature fishes attached to other signs and at times the line has various fishes attached, perhaps depicting an abundant catch.

Other marine creatures in rongorongo are found in the rock art. Depictions of shells, lobster, crab, chitons, and starfish, octopus and turtles are found in both petroglyphs and rongorongo. Images of turtle with elaborately carved carapaces are abundant in rock art. Pakia (seal) have a one-to-one parallel in rongorongo and are seen also on the Large St. Petersburg tablet.

A generic sign for a plant is found on the walls of Ana o Keke. In rongorongo this motif is shown attached to other glyphs. Gourd motifs are rare, but are essentially in the same form as signs on the tablets.

It should be noted that carving methods and the type of surface upon which figures are placed provide considerable liberties/restrictions on the carving details. For example, in large-scale petroglyphs it is possible to show fine details such as eyes, additional body lines, etc. In contrast, tiny designs carved on small rongorongo boards rely on a general shape but rarely show any fine details.

It is true that no lengthy rongorongo inscription has been discovered on stone surfaces to the present date.  This is likely due to the enormous carving effort required to reproduce these designs on a lava surface. It may be there was some social reason for this: “Wood and stone images … may be said to be symbolic of the cooperation and competitive aspects of Rapa Nui life – or as metaphors for the intimate association between two opposing social forces manifest, as ancestors and gods. Wood figures … were worn at feasts and other peaceful occasions related to family ancestors, whereas stone sculptures, symbolizing competing social groups, were invoked in rituals related to lineage ancestors or gods.” (Kaeppler 2002:34).

In any case, the artistic traditions behind rongorongo and the rock carvings are essentially the same. While we can’t point to an explicit line of glyphs carved in stone there are many very similar shapes and motifs that link petroglyphs and the signs on the tablets. Rongorongo script is deeply rooted in the art of Easter Island and this strongly advocates for its on-island development.

Human Figures in rongorongo

Human figures are common in rongorongo. The frontal view of a human features characteristically arched arms and legs, half-bent at the knees. In petroglyphs, the shoulder line may create a division at the neck that appears rarely on the tablets. The head is shown as pointed, and with protruding ears. This convention has more benefits for rongorongo with its tiny signs, as mandated by scale. In rock art, there are no restrictions for preferring pointed or rounded heads. When it comes to the depiction of a head with feathered headgear and ear-spools, the head is invariably rounded and with almond-shaped eyes. In rongorongo, there is a sign that occurs several times on Tablets H, P, Q and the Santiago Staff that displays a similar iconography: round head, eyes, vertical lines of “spikes” on top of the head and marked ear spools.

Special attention on the human body is given to arms with different hand shapes, as is attested on the tablets. Petroglyph counterparts from Ana o Keke (although not depicting the entire body) feature the same arm configuration. A sitting man is often displayed frontally, producing a “splayed” figure. These are known from both inscribed tablets and rock art, with the best example from Papa Tatuku Poki just in front of Ahu Tongariki.

Parts of the human body (aside from the komari) are relatively rare in rock art. Some hands and feet are carved at several sites and shown as stylized handprints and footprints. Yet the shape of a leg carved separately or as a part of a composite design is similar to a corresponding rongorongo sign. The vulva sign, or komari, is abundant on the island, but there are only a few occurrences of an exact match for a komari  in rongorongo, and it is restricted to the Santiago Staff I, the London rei miro L; and the Honolulu tablet V. There is another sign, more frequent in rongorongo, which is tentatively identified as a komari (Métraux 1940:409, Sign 6). It has a different shape and is carved with the other side up, relative to the orientation of vulvae motifs in rock art. It is unclear what this design depicts. It is rare in the rock art, with only a couple of motifs at Papa Tataku Poki, at Ahu Tongariki.

Special rongorongo figures

In rongorongo, many anthropomorphic signs have headgear  of different types: one vaguely resembles a “horned helmet”; the other is arranged as a set of chevrons, and others are in the form of bird masks, etc. The variation of heads in the script is explainable by joining several signs into a ligature. Indeed, the “horned helmet” and “chevrons” signs exist on the tablets as individual geometric signs. Surprisingly, there are several petroglyphs, either carved on portable stones or scratched on a block at Vai Atare, that display anthropomorphs with head “adornments” that closely resemble rongorongo glyphs. The unique figure at the sea wall of Ahu Nau Nau, Anakena, features a long-tailed being that was identified as a “monkey” by Englert (1948:522), which is certainly not the case. It more likely represented a lizard-man or a phallic figure.


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