Monsignor Jaussen soon
locates in Tahiti a laborer from Easter Island, Metoro, who claims to be able to
read the tablets. He describes in his notes how Metoro turns each tablet around
and around to find its beginning, then starts chanting its contents.
The direction of writing is unique. Starting from the left hand bottom
corner, you proceed from left to right and, at the end of the line, you turn the
tablet around before you start reading the next line. Indeed, the orientation of
the hieroglyphs is reversed every other line. Imagine a book in which every
other line is printed back to front and upside down. That is how the
tablets are written! Jaussen was not able to decipher the tablets.
There are also many zoomorphic figures, birds especially, fish and lizards
less often. The most frequent figure looks very much like the frigate bird,
which happens to have been the object of a cult, as it was associated with
Make Make, the supreme god.
When you compare the tablets which bear the same text, when you analyze
repeated groups of signs, you realize that writing must have followed rules. The
scribe could choose to link a sign to the next, but not in any old way. You
could either carve a mannikin standing, arms dangling, followed by some other
sign, or the same mannikin holding that sign with one hand. You could either
carve a simple sign (a leg, a crescent) separate from the next, or rotate it 90
degrees counterclockwise and carve the next sign on top of it.
All we can reasonably hope to decipher some day is some two to three lines of
the tablet commonly called
Mamari. You can clearly see that they have to
do with the moon. There are several versions of the ancient lunar calendar of
On Easter Island, petroglyphs are located in every sector of the island where
there are suitable surfaces. Favored locations are smooth areas of lava flow
(called "papa" in Rapanui), or on smooth basalt boulders. Most of these surfaces
occur along coastal areas and often are associated with major ceremonial
centers. Some important ahu have, as part of their structure, elegantly carved
basalt stones (pa'enga), with petroglyphs on them. Paintings survive in caves or
in some of the stone houses at 'Orongo where they are protected against the
Thousands of petroglyphs - rock carvings - can be found on Easter Island.
Many represent animals, notably birds or anthropomorphic birdmen.
One of the most famous motifs on Easter Island is that of birdman - a
half-man, half bird image that was connected to cult events at the sacred site
of 'Orongo. A bit of background on the culture is necessary to explain this
After the demise of the statue building, in the last days before the invasion
by Peruvian slave traders, there arose a cult of the Birdman (Tangata Manu). The
birdman was seen as the representative on earth of the creator god Makemake, and
eventually, this cult surpassed the traditional power of the king
Once a year, representatives from each clan would gather at the ceremonial
village of Orongo and swim to Motu Nui, a nearby Islet to search for the egg of
the Sooty Tern. On his return, the competitor presented the egg to his
representative who was then invested with the title of
Tangata Manu. He
then went down to Mataveri and from there was led in procession to the southwest
exterior slope of Rano Raraku, where he remained in seclusion for a year. The
Birdman ritual was still in existence when Europeans arrived on Easter Island -
therefore historically documented. It was also featured quite prominently in
Kevin Costner's film "Rapa Nui".
In Hanga Roa -a sprawling and pleasant community where the island's 2,775
residents live because it's the only area on the island with electricity and
running water. The most interesting souvenirs are miniature wood and stone
carvings of moais, though some stone samples up to 6 feet tall are available.
A bearded emaciated man whose ribs and vertebrae are grotesquely extended.
It is said to represent the spirits of dead ancestors.
According to the local tradition, as Chief Tuu-ko-ihu was returning home, he
saw two such spirits who had protruding ribs and hollow bellies. These
Aku later appeared to him in a dream.
Other Rapa Nui wood carvings include: statues of female figures (moai
pa'a pa'a), paddles (rapa), clubs (ua), staffs
('ao), lizards and birdman images (tangata manu).
Today, most of the original wood sculptures reside in museums around the
world - estranged from their ancestral home. The islanders still carve these
statues; continuing a tradition which, to this day, commands respect and
admiration from visitors.
M.H. de Young Memorial Museum
Wearing a tatoo in various parts of the body is a popular custom.
Every Easter Islander knows that his ancestors were