around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (6) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 17)

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).


5 Responses to around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (6) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 17)

  1. Pacal says:

    The crank express just keeps chugging along. Recent genetic, to say nothing of more refined linguisitic studies have more or less settled the question of where the Polynesians and in fact all peoples speaking Austronesian languages came from. It is my understanding that it is the area of South-East Asia where the language group originated. Although I believe there is still a debate over whether or not the Austronesian group of languages originated in Fromosea and neighbouring south China or in a wider area.

    Also in dispute is when the expansion occurred and when. It is my understanding that the time frames and speed of movement of people spreading Austonesian languages is up for dispute.

    It does appear that the outrigger canoe played a role in the spread of peoples speaking Austronesian languages. Madagascar for example seems to have been settled by people speaking an Austronesian language c. 1500 years ago. It is unknown whether or not there was a small population of African Hunter gathers on the Island at the time. As it is it appears that the initial colonizing expedition was very small perhaps under 100 individuals. In sunsequent centuries Africans from the mainland also settled in Madagascar. The modern day population of the island although practically everyone speaks an Austronesian language apparently is genetically mostly African.

    The population of most of the regions that the original Austronesians migrated through seems top have been thinly populated by hunter gatherers. This changed when the migrants encounted New Guinea which at the time (, c. 3000-2000 B.C.E.), had a signifigantly dener population because, esspecially in the highlands they already had agriculture having apparantly invented it independently of other places. Being a much denser population they interminguled with the Austronesian speakers leaving a pretty definitive genetic mark on the spreading Austronesians and of course on the Later Polynesians. It is my understanding that there are also “marks” on the various Polynesian languages.

    The last 30 years or so have provided more or less definitive proof of the above senario. Thor Hyerdahl’s fantasy as indicated in his enjoyable but highly flawed American Indians in the Pacific, that the Polynesians came from the North West Coast of North America, (Alaska, British Columbia), is competely false. Although even at the time Thor Heyerdahl published this book it was a dubious theory.

    Further Thor Heyerdahl’s opinions about Easter Island wern’t exactly flattering. Thor continued to maintain that it was American Indians, or more specifically inhabitants from South America descendent from immigrants from the Atlas region of North Africa, who arrived c. 1200 B.C.E., who erected the Moai. In Thor’s view the Polynesians arrived on Easter Island first as slaves and then later as immigrants who destroyed the Moai culture and exterminated these “Indians”. Thor turned the distinction between Short and Long ears into a racial division. It appears that in fact it was a class division. In his last book about Easter Island, Easter Island: The Mystery Solved, Thor says “One thing we can be sure of; no Polynesian fishermen built those walls.”. This is in reference to a wall around one of the platforms supporting Moai.

    It is my understanding that it is possible that the Eater Islanders could have devised Rongo- Rongo by themselves or that they were inspired to create the “script” by the various European writings they had seen during early encounters with Europeans. It seems pretty clear that they did not bring the script with them when they settled the island, (New dating gives c. 1000+ C.E., for the colonization of the island.), So either way it was a late development. Also either way it was a truly forminable intellectual feat.

    As for Stephen Fischer’s decipherment? It does indeed appear to be dubious although that doesn’t stop Mr. Fischer from tooting his own horn loudly and often. Oh and the link to Indus Script is cronologically absurd (3000+ years of seperation!). Even as “proto writing” I’m impressed with Rongo – Rongo!

    As for Barry Fell and New Zealand and the alleged inscriptions. No need to take any of that seriously it is all rot. The same people have also been claiming natural rock formations on the South Island as “Megalithic” ruins!! There is a nasty edge to all this also. THe original or native inhabitants of New Zealand are the Maori and there has been for the last generation or so a series of legal and other battles over land claims etc. THe idea that the original inhabitants wer “Celtic” settlers (Europeans), who were driven out or exterminated by the Maori, (This piece of twaddle cames from some of these people.), is being used as a weapon against Moari claims legal and moral. It is also so much crap.

    As for Australia. I’ve seen the alleged “Egyptian” inscriptions. They are crude obvious fakes. They don’t look much like any sample of the real thing from Egypt in the c. 3500 years the script was written. Also they are often located in areas that are shall we say away from the ocean and rivers. Practically all of them are in the “classic” way of writing heiroglyphs I’m not aware of any in the hieratic or demotic form of the script, both of which would be vastly more likely to be used by Egyptian scribes under the circumstances if they were in fact there..

    • Shamus says:

      Im no expert on Barry Fell or liguistics etc etc. But i do know that there are many items and places in New Zealand that are older than the ‘original inhabitants’.
      I know this because i have seen some of them.
      Remains of Spanish ships 1,200 years old, buried in sand and river beds.
      Remains of extensive stone settlements. Google ‘Waipoua Forest’ and you will see why there is conjecture?

      • marknewbrook says:

        Thanks for this.  Well, the current scholarly consensus is that there are no verified cases of this kind, and in particular no verified ruins earlier than 1000 CE (when the Moriori and then the Maori began to arrive).  There ARE a few arguably mysterious grave-sites, e.g. in the Waipoua Forest, but in some such cases it’s reported that Maori leaders have been less than fully co-operative with intending investigators.  Re ‘Spanish ships’: Spain did not exist as a culture/nation 1,200 years ago, so I don’t understand this reference; clarification would be welcome.  More generally, anyone who believes they are in possession of impressive evidence of settlement in NZ (Polynesian or other) dating back before 1000 CE should bring this evidence to the attention of NZ-based or other archaeologists.  Please copy any such material to me; I am not an archaeologist, but I will gladly look at anything of this kind myself and more importantly I will bring it to the attention of archaeologists known to me.  Thanks again!  Mark

  2. Pacal says:

    I forgot to mention the reason I gave the date of c. 1000 C.E.+ rather than your date of 400 C.E., for the setllemet of Easter Island is because recent dating evidence suggests a much later date for the setllement of the island than previously thought. In fact the book The Satutes that Walked, pp. 15-17 cir=tes various pieces of dating evidence to suggest a date of 1200 C.E. So it appears likely that the conventional date of c. 400 C.E. is wrong.

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks for this, Pacal.  I had not caught up with this info.  I will check when free and see how the expert opinions now pan out.  Mark

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