The pop anthropologist Jared Diamond likes to use Easter Island as an example of how a human society can self-destruct. Over a few hundred years, a people that had once been prosperous enough to build the famous stone monoliths, the moai, crashed into extinction. The island was deforested, the societal structures fell apart, and by the time the Europeans arrived in the early eighteenth century, the once fecund island could barely support the Rapanui people; the Rapanui may even have turned to cannabalism. Diamond, in a lecture entitled "Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?", speculates that the Rapanui’s religious beliefs — particularly their continuing desire to build the moai — prevented them from altering their behavior until it was too late. But no one knows for sure, because we can’t read the Easter Islanders’ written records. Only a handful of examples of this script, Rongorongo, still exist. Although experts agree about certain aspects of the Rongorongo corpus, including at least one bit of text that is a lunar calendar, much about the language is unknown. Those few wooden tablets and implements that could be found by the Bishop of Tahiti, Tepano Jaussen, were preserved; Jaussen then cataloged the hieroglyphics, which seemed to be read in a weird, turning-the-tablet-around manner. But not enough of a corpus survived for definitive analysis to be done. The language of Rapanui survived, and there were hopes in the nineteenth century that someone could be found who could read the tablets. Ure Vaeiko, a native who was believed to have studied Rongorongo as a child, was consulted and shown photographs of one of the tablets, and he gave a recitation known as "Atua-Mata-Riri" ("God-eyes-angry" or "God Angry-Eye"):
God Atua Matariri and goddess Taporo produced thistle.
God-of-the-angry-look by copulating with Roundness produced the poporo.
God Ahimahima Marao and goddess Takihi Tupufema produced rocks.
Himahima-marao by copulating with Lichen-growing-on-the-soil produced the lichen.
God Aoevai and goddess Kava Kohekoe produced medicine.
Oevai by copulating with Fern produced the fern.
God Matua anua and goddess Kappipiri Aaitau produced the Miro tree.
The Parent-mother by copulating with Pipiri-hai-tau produced wood.
Sadly, Vaeiko’s recitation has not been shown to conform to any of the extant tablets, leaving experts to argue about what Rongorongo means.
Translating tends to be hit or miss. We can read Hittite, but our understanding of Etruscan is dubious. The early form of written Greek called Linear B has been translated (thanks to the insights of amateur linguist Michael Ventris and Cambridge classicist John Chadwick, among others). Linear A remains a mystery.
If it hadn’t been for the discovery of the Rosetta stone, hieroglyphic script might never have been translated. That sort of luck doesn’t happen every day. All the computational power in the world, the sort of thing that reveals that the Voynich manuscript seems to be written in a real language, can’t tell you what the text means. Experts argue about what flavor of writing Rongorongo is, or if it’s even writing at all. The Easter Island heads lend an air of mystery to the island; all sorts of amateurs and cranks have their theories about where the island was settled from. Rongorongo remains silent. Visitors to the island today can buy replica tablets, mute and unexplained, as souvenirs.