Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Writing in South America – Part II

Continuing from the previous post regarding information on the Rongorongo writing of Easter Island, claimed by its first inhabitants to have been brought from the mainland to the east (South America), the script’s interpretation and historical memory of the first inhabitants of the island, which at one time, supported a relatively advanced and complex civilization. 
    While the earliest settlers of Easter Island possessed both the Rongorongo tablets, and the ability to read and write the language, in 1862, Peruvian slave ships captured nearly the entire population of Easter Island. The remaining population does not seem to have been literate, and knowledge of how to read the scripts was lost. While all such historic or legends were handed down orally through the centuries, there is no way of verifying this history. Published literature suggests the island was settled around 300–400 A.D., about the time of the arrival of the earliest settlers in Hawaii. There is considerable debate among scientists about these dates and numerous others, partly based on radio-carbon dating of woods and ashes that are “believed” to have been old.
As for the ancient script, it is said by Easter Islanders that only the master scribes engraved on wood, the apprentices used banana leaves. It is claimed by some experts that rongo-rongo writing notes that some experts consider that the writing was originally only on the banana leaves and that the Rongorongo boards were designed to look like banana leaves, even including the ridges between the lines of writing which correspond to the veins on the banana leaf.
    Also of interest is the tradition that the early Incas and ancient Peruvians had not always been without writing-that they used to write codices like the Mayans did, but on banana leaves, and that during times of war and famine all of the old codices had been burnt up. This is scoffed at by experts saying there could have been no banana leaves available then; however, Thor Heyerdahl points out that Archaeologists had legitimately reported items found in Peruvian graves wrapped in banana-leaves.
    Evidently banana leaves are preserved better in the Peruvian climate than would have otherwise seemed likely, and adds to the old historical memory claims that the Rongorongo writing came from the mainland to the east, that is, South America.
    It might be of interest to know, though today frowned upon, that in 1892 the Australian pediatrician Alan Carroll published a fanciful translation, based on the idea that the texts were written by an extinct “Long-Ear” population of Easter Island in a diverse mixture of Quechua and other languages of Peru and Mesoamerica. Perhaps due to the cost of casting special type for Rongorongo, no method, analysis, or sound values of the individual glyphs were ever published. Carroll continued to publish short communications in Science of Man, the journal of the (Royal) Anthropological Society of Australasia until 1908.
    When the wooden tablets of writing were first discovered, by Eugène Eyraud in 1864, he wrote: “In every hut one finds wooden tablets or sticks covered in several sorts of hieroglyphic characters: They are depictions of animals unknown on the island, which the natives draw with sharp stones. Each figure has its own name; but the scant attention they pay to these tablets leads me to think that these characters, remnants of some primitive writing, are now for them a habitual practice which they keep without seeking its meaning.”
Unfortunately, to-date, according to Steven Fischer, the topic of the texts is unknown; various investigators have speculated they cover genealogy, navigation, astronomy, or agriculture (Steven Roger Fischer, RongoRongo, the Easter Island Script: History, Traditions, Texts, Oxford University Press Oxford and N.Y, 1997). Even so, Fischer has claimed some partial interpretations, but other linguists disagree. So far, there is no agreement on the interpretation, meaning or content of the writing.
    In 1935, Steven Chauvet said: “The Bishop questioned the Rapanui wise man, Ouroupano Hinapote, the son of the wise man Tekaki [who said that] he, himself, had begun the requisite studies and knew how to carve the characters with a small shark's tooth. He said that there was nobody left on the island who knew how to read the characters since the Peruvians had brought about the deaths of all the wise men and, thus, the pieces of wood were no longer of any interest to the natives who burned them as firewood or wound their fishing lines around them.” The French explorer, philologist and ethnographer, Alphonse L. Pinart also saw some in 1877, but he was able to acquire only a single set, because the natives were using them as reels for their fishing lines” (The Pinart Collection at the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley).
    Today, only 26 examples of Rongorongo text remain (with 3 disputed), each with letter codes inscribed on wooden objects, containing between 2 and 2320 simple and compound glyphs, with over 15,000 in all. Two of the tablets, “C” and “S,” have a documented pre-missionary provenance, though others may be as old or older.
    Unfortunately, this disappearance of the written tablets has been identified and placed at the feet of the early Catholic Church on Easter Island. Because of their sacred nature to the early inhabitants of the island, the natives hid them from the European immigrants, presumably because the missionaries considered the ceremonial documents as idolatrous objects. The natives repeatedly asserted that the missionaries had prohibited them from reading the tablets, and even had induced them to burn these objects as devil's work. Of this, the Swede De Greno, who arrived about 1870 at Easter island, said:
    “...soon after the Catholic Mission was established on the Island, the missionaries persuaded many of the people to consume by fire all the blocks (tablets) in their possession, telling them that they were but heathen records and that the possession of them would have a tendency to attach them to their heathenism and prevent their thorough conversion to the new religion and the consequent saving of their souls..” 
Also Katherine Pease Routledge, the renowned English Archaeologist and Anthropologist, and also explorer of Easter island, was told during the Mana Expedition to Rapa Nui in 1914 by a native that he possessed a great number of tablets, all of which he had thrown away on the advice of the missionaries, and afterwards another man had built a boat of them (Katherine Routledge: The Mystery of Easter Island, Cosmo Classics, New York, 2005; Ed. Tregear and S. Percy Smith, Joint Hon, Secretaries, and Treasurers, and Editors of Journal of the Polynesian Solciety, No 1 Vol 1, April 15, 1892, University of Auckland).
    Thomas S. Barthel, Professor of Ethnology at the University of Tübingen in Germany, which dates from 1477, was active in the mid-twentieth century deciphering the Maya script, the hieroglyphic writing system of the pre-Columbian Maya, and an influential researcher in the Mayan civilization, also spent time as a guest researcher with the Institute for Easter Island Studies at the University of Chile. It is his work on the Rongorongo written language claimed to have been brought to the island by ancient settlers from Peru in their historical memory of their history, that tells us about the ancient language. In order to document Rongorongo, Barthel visited most of the museums which housed the tablets, of which he made pencil rubbings. With this data he compiled the first corpus of the script, which he published as Grundlagen zur Entzifferung der Osterinselschrift (Bases for the Decipherment of the Easter Island Script), Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Hamburg, 1958.
(See the next post, “Writing in South America – Part III,” for information on the Rongorongo script and its interpretation and the historical memory of the first inhabitants of the island)

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