Hi again, everybody! Thanks for comments as ever! I turn now to issues of this kind involving Pacific territories.
The mainstream view of Pacific linguistic history is that the Polynesian languages as they spread eastwards from East Asia across the ocean, and the other Pacific languages, were unwritten until the beginning of European colonization. The only exception is the now small corpus written in the Rongorongo script of outlying Easter Island (Rapa Nui). Rongorongo lacks an accepted decipherment but is generally presumed (in the absence of other candidate languages) to encode an earlier stage of Rapa Nui, the contemporary Polynesian language of the island (settled around 400 CE); it is possible that it represents an independent invention of writing.
Hundreds of tablets written in Rongorongo existed as late as 1864, but most were lost or destroyed in that period and only twenty-six remain today; almost all of these are inscribed in wood. Each text has between two and over two thousand simple glyphs (some feature what appear to be compound glyphs). The longest surviving text is that on the ‘Santiago Staff’: around 2,500 glyphs, depending upon how the characters are divided. The glyph-types are a mixture of geometric figures and standardized representations of living organisms; each glyph is around one centimetre in height. Thomas Barthel provides a standard list.
Only Tablet Q has been carbon-dated, but the results limit the date only to after 1680 (in any event, some carbon-dates for Rongorongo are demonstrably inaccurate). Texts A, P, and V can be dated to the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries by virtue of being inscribed on European oars.
Some ‘decipherers’ themselves regard Rongorongo as local in origin. Sergei Rjabchikov (unusually ‘mainstream’ in this case) interprets the texts as in an early form of Rapa Nui. Barry Fell (see earlier) ‘deciphers’ the script with the aid of cave ‘inscriptions’ and other texts from New Zealand (see below); he treats the language as an artificial (priestly) Polynesian language closely related to Maori.
On the other hand, various non-mainstream writers have linked Rongorongo with scripts and languages from remote areas. A common choice is Indus Valley Script, itself currently undeciphered (see earlier); some Rongorongo characters superficially resemble those of IVS.
Stephen Fischer (one of the ‘decipherers’ of the Phaistos Disk) has argued that Rongorongo is in fact a modern invention and is logographic and ‘semasiographic’ in character (and thus, in part, not strictly linguistic). He reads the text on the Santiago Staff as a series of creation chants. Konstantin Pozdniakov notes that the Staff shares short phrases with a very few other texts but nothing with the rest of the Rongorongo corpus; and Jacques Guy argues that Fischer’s reading is untenable (and that if it were correct the text on the Staff would consist almost entirely of personal names). Paul Bahn and John Flenley support the Fischer ‘decipherment’, but without displaying linguistic expertise.
The prevailing mainstream opinion is that Rongorongo is not true writing but ‘proto-writing’, or even a limited system of mnemonics. This view was foreshadowed by some earlier writers, notably Katherine Routledge, who interpreted Rongorongo as an idiosyncratic mnemonic system in which the meanings of the glyphs varied from scribe to scribe
Another regional focus of non-mainstream theorizing involving scripts in the Pacific proper is New Zealand, which was settled from Eastern Polynesia around 1000 CE. The mainstream position is that here too the languages (Moriori and Maori) were unwritten until the colonial period. However, some non-mainstream authors offer hyper-diffusionist theories (similar to those applied to the Americas) involving unrecognized early visits to New Zealand on the part of voyagers from Asia, Europe, Africa etc. – some involving unrecognized early contact with the New Zealand Polynesians, who are themselves sometimes held to have settled the islands earlier than the given date (see for instance the works of Barry Brailsford).
Barry Fell claimed to have identified Libyan and Numidian script in New Zealand, and also found Polynesian elements on the Phaistos Disk. Ross Wiseman and others believe that they have found Egyptian and Phoenician inscriptions around New Zealand, confirming their hyper-diffusionist views of history. However, some of these are natural markings on rocks, which they are over-interpreting; others are indeed written language but contain errors and are surely fakes. With some other amateurs, Martin Doutré argues for an alternative hyper-diffusionist view of early New Zealand history involving early voyages by ‘Celts’ and members of other Eurasian groups. Doutré’s linguistics is of the usual non-mainstream type. Like Wiseman, he identifies ancient inscriptions in Eurasian languages in New Zealand and endorses the ideas of the ‘Viewzone’ group (who also link the Panaramitee Aboriginal rock-art tradition of Australia with their claims regarding a common world script in very early times).
I turn now to Australia, on the fringe of the Pacific. Many non-mainstream authors have offered and continue to offer hyper-diffusionist theories involving unrecognized early visits to Australia by long-distance voyagers. Some of these theories involve the supposed presence in Australia of inscriptions in Egyptian or Phoenician script, found on rock faces or associated with ruins (typically, in fact, of nineteenth-century origin) and ruin-like rock formations. (For cultural reasons, there are far fewer genuine pre-colonial ‘indigenous’ buildings in Australia than in New Zealand.) Some of these alleged inscriptions again contain errors and are surely fakes; others are over-interpreted natural markings.
One author who has proclaimed the presence in Australia of Egyptian hieroglyphic texts is Paul White, who endorses as genuine a set of rock carvings found in the National Park forest in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales. White (claiming support from an Egyptologist) argues that the inscriptions feature early forms of hieroglyphs which ‘correlate’ with archaic Phoenician and Sumerian sources, but this view of early Egyptian script is simply mistaken, and the text in question is now acknowledged as a fake.
Val Osborn claims to have found a Phoenician port in Sarina, Queensland, and other authors report Phoenician or Egyptian inscriptions from that state and from New South Wales, notably the prominent ‘anomalist’ Rex Gilroy. Gilroy and Brett Green have identified ‘texts’ linked with the ‘Gympie Pyramid’ in Queensland (which probably represents ruined nineteenth-century vineyard terracing) as Egyptian or Indian in origin.
More next time on a few additional cases (some of them involving East Asia).