Friday, February 2, 2018

Writing in South America – Part IV

Continuing from the previous post regarding information on the Rongorongo 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.
    In 1957 the Russian epigraphers Nikolai Butinov and Yuri Knorozov (who in 1952 had provided the key insights which would later lead to the decipherment of the Maya writing system) suggested that the repetitive structure of a sequence of some fifteen glyphs on the Small Santiago Tablet Gv5–6 (lines 5 and 6) was compatible with a genealogy.
The present study demonstrates how the three inscriptions of the "Santiago Staff," the "Small Santiago Tablet," and "Honolulu Tablet 1," comprise to a large degree repetitive series of glyphic triads whose first constituent is invariably suffixed by a phallus-like glyph (Steven Roger Fischer, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol.104, No.3, 1995, pp303-322)
    Although no-one has been able to confirm Butinov and Knorozov's hypothesis, it is widely considered plausible. If it is correct, then, first, we can identify other glyph sequences which constitute personal names. Second, the Santiago Staff would consist mostly of persons' names as it bears 564 occurrences of glyph 76, the putative patronymic marker, one fourth of the total of 2320 glyphs. Third, the sequence 606.76 700, translated by Fischer as "all the birds copulated with the fish, would in reality mean (So-and-so) son of 606 was killed. The Santiago Staff, with 63 occurrences of glyph 700, a rebus for îka "victim," would then be in part a kohau îka (list of war casualties).
Top: If the repeated independent glyph 200 is a title such as "king," and if the repeated attached glyph 76 is a patronymic marker, then this means "Bottom) something like four generations of genealogy
    Since the proposal by Butinov and Knorozov in the 1950s, the majority of philologists, linguists and cultural historians have taken the line that rongorongo was not true writing but proto-writing, that is, an ideographic-and rebus-based mnemonic device, such as the Donga script of the Naxi people, which would in all likelihood make it impossible to decipher. This skepticism is justified not only by the failure of the numerous attempts at decipherment, but by the extreme rarity of independent writing systems around the world. 
    Of those who have attempted to decipher Rongorongo as a true writing system, the vast majority have assumed it was logographic, a few that it was syllabic or mixed. Statistically it appears to have been compatible with neither a pure logography nor a pure syllabary. The topic of the texts is unknown; various investigators have speculated they cover genealogy, navigation, astronomy, or agriculture. Oral history suggests that only a small elite were ever literate, and that the tablets were considered sacred. It is believed by the linguists who have studied it that we will probably never know what the tablets mean: too few have survived. Let us then be content with the little of which we can be sure.
    According to Jacques B.M. Guy, in Rongorongo, Easter Island Tablets, and whose writings have appeared in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, and the Rapa Nui Journal, states that “each tablet was prepared before carving. Shallow grooves were cut lengthwise, probably using an adze with a blade of shell or of obsidian. They are 10 to 15mm wide, and can be clearly seen in a photo (Easter Island: Mystery of the Stone Giants, Harry N Abrams, New York, 1995, pp.64-­65) of Catherine and Michel Orliac's excellent small book. The signs themselves were engraved in those grooves, probably with shark teeth or obsidian flakes, as oral tradition has it.”
    In describing the actual characters, Guy states, “The overwhelming majority of the hieroglyphs are anthropomorphic, that is, animals and plants and forces of nature such as winds, rain or the sun depicted as creatures with human motivations, and/or the abilities to reason and converse. It is an eastern literary device, anthropomorphism is strongly associated with art and storytelling where it has ancient roots, as opposed to Western tendency to treat animals, plant and non-living things, unlike humans, that lack spiritual and mental attributes, immortal souls, and anything other than relatively limited awareness—an attribution of human characteristics or with human characteristics, such as a wind attacking a person or building.
    The characters are like little figures, facing you, or sideways; standing with dangling arms; or sitting with their legs sometimes stretched, sometimes crossed; with a hand up, or down, or turned to the mouth; some hold a staff, some a shield, some a barbed string.”
    In addition, “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 Make­Make, the supreme god.”
    Concerning the Peruvian hieroglyphics; from which it may plausibly be inferred that in the times of the Incas there was no knowledge of the art of writing in characters, and that all these sculptures are the remains of a very remote period. Montesinos is the only one who tells us that in the first centuries after the conquest of Peru by the Americans, under the reign of Huainacavi-Pirhua, the use of letters was known: but that it was lost afterward, under the reign of Titu, son of Titu Yupanqui V. In many parts of Peru, chiefly in situations greatly elevated above the level of the sea, are vestiges of inscriptions very much obliterated by time.
    In addition, according to the observations of Don Mariano de Rivero, at the distance of eight leagues north of Arequipa there exist a multitude of engravings on granite which represent figures of animals, flowers, and fortifications, and which doubtless tell the story of events anterior to the dynasty of the Incas. In the province of Castro-Vireyna, in the town of Huaytara, there is found, in the ruins of a large edifice, of similar construction to the celebrated palace of old Huanuco, a mass of granite, many square yards in size, with coarse engravings like those last mentioned near Arequipa. None of the most trustworthy historians allude to these inscriptions or representations, or give the smallest direct information (J. W. Powell, Director, Tenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1888-1889, p159)
    It is obvious that the professionals working in South America approach everything they do with the predisposition that there was no written language among the ancients there and reject anything found or uncovered or deciphered that will alter that belief. The fact is, that given any other situation in any other location, such discoveries and advances would be heralded. However, scientists have a difficult time accepting advances in the Americas. Other than LDS archaeologists and anthropologists who flood Mesoamerica, research in the Americas has been slow and performed by only a few in comparison to other parts of the world. Yet, what has been found, just with the Rongorongo work by a small handful, such as Steven Fischer, is remarkable and shows without question an advanced writing system did exist in the Peruvian mainland that was brought to Easter Island where it died out with the people’s near extinction centuries later.
    Perhaps we should keep in mind Moroni's parting comment; "But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written and also that none other people knoweth our language; and because that none other people knoweth our language, therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof" (Mormon 9:34).

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