Easter Island's Last Secret: The Only Polynesian Island Where Traces of an Indigenous Script Have Been Discovered

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The only Polynesian island where traces of an indigenous script have been discovered

The azure waves which break on the shores of Easter Island have come all the way from the far edge of the Pacific Ocean - a thought which makes the place seem even more isolated than it looks. In the night sky, the bright stars of the southern hemisphere seem to be far-off sister isles exchanging winked messages with the huge stone statues that dot the island like a tribe of dozing giants.

Easter Island has many faces - obscure, extraordinary and mysterious. There's the island you see, as described by explorers, and then the hidden one, of caves and tunnels and the secret lore its inhabitants share. There's the island whose history is lost in the mists of time and the island depicted by scientists, artists and travellers. All these dimensions overlap, interlace and whisper to the others, like so many primal echoes. Works of art and tourist trinkets apart, Easter Island is a place the West has invented to fantasize about.

From the air, it looks like a boomerang hurled from another planet slap into the middle of the ocean. A 118 sq. km triangle of rock with its high point to the northeast, facing towards the islets of Polynesia, and its flat part in the southwest, looking towards the far distant coast of Chile. At each corner of the triangle is a volcano. In the left-hand corner is the almost-perfect cone of Rano Kau. In the right-hand one, Rano Rarako, on whose slopes are the biggest group of giant stone statues (moai). In the northern corner is Rano Aroi, next to Mount Terevaka. Nearly all the islanders live in the village of Hanga Roa, near Rano Kau.

The nearest inhabited land is 3,500 km away.

A mysterious script

Easter Island is the only Polynesian island where ancient writing has been found. Its meaning is an impenetrable secret.

Even though it was confined to such a small geographical area and used by the tiny handful of people who lived there, the writing shows evidence of a sophisticated civilization. Who were these people ? When did they get there and where did they come from? Did they bring their civilization and writing with them? What feelings, thoughts and values did these incomprehensible markings once convey?

Landing on this remote spot in the middle of the Pacific vastness can only have been a mistake or the result of a mishap or piece of good fortune. The discovery of the island in 1722 by Europeans, in the person of the Dutch Admiral Jacob Roggeveen, was a bad omen. The island's population then was 4,000; it had been reduced to 1,800 by 1863, 600 by 1870, a mere 200 five years after that, and only a few more in 1911. The nineteenth century was ruthless with non-European cultures. Easter Island's only resource was its manpower and a few patches of farmland. But its poverty hardly protected it against colonial rapacity.

In 1862, a fleet of pirate slavers from Peru came looking for workers for the guano industry and made off with more than 1,000 of the islanders, including their king, Kaimokau, his son Maurata and the elders who could read the writing on the stone tablets known as rongo-rongo.

The French consul in Lima eventually managed to get a hundred-odd of the deported islanders repatriated, but by then they were infected with smallpox and on their return they contaminated the rest of the population. The secret of the Easter Island script probably died with the victims of this catastrophic epidemic.

The earliest research on the inscriptions was done between 1864 and 1886, when an attempt was made to categorize the markings or compare them with other undeciphered scripts - from ancient India, for example. There were three stages in these attempts at decipherment, each linked with a figure symbolizing a period of the island's history and a specific tablet.

The bishop of Tahiti's tablet

Easter Island had about 1,000 inhabitants when the French merchant ship Tampico, captained by Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier and carrying the missionary Father Gaspar Zumbohm, anchored offshore in 1866. …