Monday, February 10, 2014

A Bar Exam Question

My old girl friend entered the room. For many years, I had dreamed about this day and had imagined that our encounter would be bittersweet and poignant. We would reminisce about the good old days in quiet voices, all passion clarified into resignation and tranquility. But it was nothing like that. My old girlfriend had not aged and since nothing about her had changed, it seemed as if my feelings were also unchanged and this took me by surprise.

When she unexpectedly entered, I was speaking with a large and very handsome man seated on a throne-like chair. I had attended law school with this man and always marveled at his handsome, immobile face and his powerful chest and body and his great hands that rested on the arms of his chair like the paws of a mighty lion. When my former girlfriend approached, I nodded at her, but she pretended not to see me. She made herself busy not seeing me and I felt a pang of bitterness.

I leaned close to the large man and whispered in his left ear: "Do you see her?" He nodded. "Pretty, isn't she?" I asked. The big man nodded again. My ex-girlfriend approached him on the right side of his throne. I felt boastful and said: "I lived with her for six months." That was untrue: we had been intimate for three years but I never lived with her and, during that time, she had a succession of affairs with other men. I looked across the big man's impassive face and saw that my ex-girlfriend was whispering in his right ear, all the while carefully avoiding the slightest glance in my direction.

The big man turned to me. His eyes flashed wrathfully: "I don't know how you can expect me to understand a word you are saying when you whisper to me at the same time she is talking in my other ear."

And I recognized that what he was said was indisputably true.


Some people do whatever they do with zest. They seize the day. I suppose that I should have studied law with enthusiasm and made the best of each day, enlivening each class with my optimism and high spirits.

Many people are vibrant and enjoy life. This is not the case with me. I am sullen and pessimistic by nature, unfriendly and solitary. I suppose it was amazing that I even had a girlfriend when I was in law school, let alone an attractive, if unfaithful, one.

My girlfriend had contempt for my sour attitude. She told me that I should enjoy life and be grateful for the pleasures that came my way. Often, she tried to persuade me to be more positive and sociable. She told me that lawyers were mostly positive and sociable people, personable with firm handshakes and a ready smile. "You will not succeed," she said, "unless you adopt a better attitude."

But she made success in my studies difficult. Invariably, at the end of each quarter, when I was studying for my exams, she would have an affair with one of my friends and, then, confess those events to me triggering hours of weeping and wailing. Every time I opened a book and began to seriously study, she would come to my side and begin explaining my failings and why those deficiencies had compelled her to betray me and, when I became angry with her, she would say that I was blaming her for what she had done, when, in fact, I was the one to blame.

The week before I took the bar exam, she arranged for me to find her in bed with a man that I had met a few times before, a mechanic with whom she traded oral sex for tune-ups on her car. My girlfriend told me that this man was very handy and that he could fix anything that was broken and that he had a cheerful heart. We clung to one another weeping because of my defects and my girlfriend said that she loved me but could never be faithful to me. My bitterness and constant recriminations were murdering her spirit.

I took the bar exam with tears in my eyes and thought that I had failed. Several of the questions made no sense to me at all. Those questions seemed to be about problems existing in the world that had nothing to do with the law at all, questions of etiquette and morality that I couldn't parse as involving any legal issues. One of the questions didn't even seem to me to be a question: rather, I read the little paragraph of prose on which I was supposed to spend the next hour writing an answer, as a parable, a depiction of a state of affairs that was inescapable.

Somehow, I passed the bar exam, although I didn't know this for many months. My girlfriend attended my graduation from law school and said that she was proud of me and, then, she went away and I never saw her again. Or, at least, never saw her until we met in the room with the big man.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

On decoding the RongoRongo

On decoding the RongoRongo


“The enemies of the decipherer of an unknown written script are fantasy, coincidence, and circularity. History is replete with cases of men who decoded unknown characters only to discover that the text supported their imagined, and fantastic, view of the civilization that produced the writing. For fifty years, Mayan glyphs were deciphered to produce evidence of a profoundly pacifist culture, obsessed with astronomical cycles and deep time. Not surprisingly, the proponent for this reading of Mayan glyphs was a gentle veteran of World War One, a pacifist, and amateur astronomer. (In fact, Mayan writings prosaically document the history of feuding city-states involved in almost unimaginably violent internecine conflict.) Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest fascinated with alchemy decoded the Egyptian hieroglyphs as being magical formulae for the transmutation of base metals in gold. Coincidental similarities between characters and glyphs sometimes results in decoders making bizarre claims about the diffusion of writing between cultures remote from one another in space and time. Certain Chinese characters look remarkably like proto-Elamite script – but this doesn’t prove that the Chinese are proto-Elamites or vice-versa. Finally, circular or tautological reasoning has wrecked many an otherwise plausible and scientific effort to read unknown characters. This error arises when a researcher sets out to prove what he already believes – for instance, Steven Fischer adjusting the evidence with respect to RongoRongo to prove that the writing is genealogical after reaching the insight, spurious as it turns out, that a certain character represents a phallus and that the phallus is a sign of paternity...”
My translation from Grundlagen zur Entzifferung der Osterinselschrift
Thomas Barthel, Hamburg (1958)


If you are like most people interested in Easter Island, undoubtedly, you labor under one of two misconceptions as to the mysterious RongoRongo script incised into stones in that place, antique shields and harpoon shafts, and several enigmatic wooden tablets. Most probably, you regard RongoRongo inscriptions as undeciphered and indecipherable. Many prominent linguists have declared that the epigraphs consist of too few characters to be read: the text sample is simply too small to be decoded. Indeed, some scholars have declared the characters to be purely ornamental, marks that probably duplicated tattoos in the flesh of long-buried islanders and not a written language at all. Other researchers claim that the marks are proto-writing – that is, mnemonic characters recorded to prompt the memory of ritual specialists, a kind of hymnal without words.

In the alternative, if you have kept abreast of relatively recent developments, you may regard the RongoRongo code as essentially cracked. This misperception arises as a consequence of statements made by authorities in ancient Polynesian languages, including the redoubtable and famous Sir David Attenborough. In 1995, Steven Roger Fischer, director of the Department of Polynesian Studies at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, announced that he had decoded RongoRongo and could reliably read the glyphs. The claim was pressed most vigorously in a 1997 book, more than 700 pages bearing the prestigious imprint of Oxford University Press. Fischer concluded that the texts were mythological geneaologies constructed on the principle of a triad: God X copulated with Y to produce Z. The key to this reading was a character known as the “ure” (character 76) – the same character that Adolf Nadel had described by reference to the German Fraktur letters as the “ess-tset.” Character 76 is a bulbous-looking staff-shaped mark, something like two elongated “s” letters connected by a ligature. Early recordings of Easter Island elders reciting from the RongoRongo texts suggest that these informants “read” Character 76 as “ure,” a Polynesian word for “phallus.” From this evidence, Fischer concluded that the inscriptions were geneaological, similar in form to Biblical passages repetitively proclaiming that “David began Solomon by the wife of Uriah and Solomon begat Abijah and Abijah begat Asaph and Asaph begat Jehosaphat...” (Matthew 1: 6-7). The Easter Island texts, Fischer claimed, established lineages of various creatures: “So all the birds copulated with the fishes and begat the sun...” or “the Shark God copulated with the sharks to beget the sharks...”

Most archaeologists specializing in Easter Island were skeptical of Fischer’s claims. Most obviously, many of the formulae that his reading produced seemed to be gibberish – “the Shark God copulated with the sharks to produce sharks.” As one critic argued, there is no reason to regard the ancient Polynesians as “cretins.” More problematic was the fact that the old, poorly transcribed recordings of Easter Island elders chanting from RongoRongo texts were themselves almost inaudible and well-nigh impossible to decipher. Several other characters may have been associated with the word “ure,” including figures that look nothing like pictographs for the penis – one of the glyphs seems to be shaped like a crab. Finally, Fischer was accused of seeing “phalluses were none were present.” Many of the genitive triads (“with Y, X begat Z”) didn’t display character 76 at all. Fischer solved this dilemma by claiming that the “phallus” sign for “copulated” was a convention so well-understood by the priests reading from the tablets that their scribes saved precious wood – Easter Island was deforested and treeless – by simply deleting that glyph.

In any event, Steven Roger Fischer’s credibility as a scholar was damaged beyond repair when he proclaimed that he had also decoded the famous “Phaistos disk,” an enigmatic object discovered on Crete and inscribed with characters in an unknown script. This claim was swiftly debunked as ludicrous and Fischer’s work derided. Fischer currently runs a website called “Glyphbreaker” and claims to be the world’s greatest decipherer of unknown languages In fact, he seems to belong to the long line of confidence men, or, more charitably stated, self-deluded visionaries who populate the ranks of those claiming to have decoded texts written in hitherto inexplicable script. Scholars and pseudo-scholars of this sort form a venerable lineage of their own, stretching back to the third or fourth century A.D. when Horapollo claimed he had decoded Egyptian hieroglyphs through Athanasius Kircher, the 17th century Jesuit and polymath whose treatise on hieroglyphic writing was proclaimed as authoritative by Popes and Kings through Sir Arthur Evans who deceived himself and others into thinking that he could read Linear B and, finally, Steven Roger Fischer. The reader must determine whether, and how, Adolf Nadel, also known as Adolf Schneider aka Arturo Taylor, fits into this succession of dreamers, frauds, and visionaries.

For about a decade, my business required that I travel frequently to Santiago, Chile. Mostly, I flew to Santiago via Miami and, generally, arrived late at night in the Chilean capital. On several occasions, hurricanes or violent sub-tropical depressions, delayed my flights and I discovered that in order to reliably attend a meeting scheduled for mid-day on Wednesday, it was best for me to travel on Monday, or, even, if possible, on Sunday. My work in Chile was fairly arduous, particularly since my Spanish is rudimentary, and, therefore, I became accustomed to arriving in Santiago a day or, often, two days before my meetings.

As a result, I usually had an afternoon free to explore Santiago. Santiago is the most beautiful and genial city in the world, a combination of Los Angeles and Vancouver. The climate is extraordinarily temperate and the backdrop of high, snow-capped peaks glistening with glaciers is spectacularly beautiful. I enjoyed walking the streets of the city and exploring the old cathedrals and the public squares thronged with boisterous pigeons and sea gulls and, sometimes, I visited the great Natural History Museum with its two great pillars flanking the entrance themselves flanked by the columns of ramrod-straight and mighty palm trees. All sorts of wonderful things could be seen in the museum: long gloomy galleries thronged with stuffed animals, the zeppelin-frame of a blue whale’s bones hovering over the central courtyard, the mummy of child sacrificed atop a 20,000 foot volcano, her face and perfectly preserved fingers the color of henna, and a glass case displaying three wooden objects inscribed with tiny characters. For some reason, the wooden tablets particularly interested me. One of them was a flat scepter, possibly a canoe paddle, incised with small glyphs that seemed to mimic an elaborate and graceful dance. Through the glass, the wood seemed soft, the color of ripe cherries, and the two smaller tablets, were pillow-shaped, objects on which to recline one’s head and dream strange dreams. Although I didn’t realize this on my first or, even, second visit to the museum, the glass case contained the largest and best-preserved collection of wooden objects inscribed in the RongoRongo script existing in the world. Dust congested the glass protecting the artifacts and, perhaps, there was some deposit of Santiago’s famous smog also obstructing my view – in any event, the RongoRongo writings of those weathered wooden tablets rounded like rose-wood clouds floated in the gloom, always slightly obscure and foggy to the eye. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to read the labels explaining the contents of the display case. On a table in front of cabinet holding the tablets, the museum had placed a replica of the large paddle-shaped artifact. A legend written on an inscription affixed to the replica showed me that it was the work “A. Nadel” – my first contact with that name. I must confess that there was something about the RongoRongo tablets that stirred just the faintest erotic associations in me.

Another replica caught my eye. At the International Airport, near the LAN ticketing concourse, a twenty-foot tall idol, cast in brown plastic in the form of one of the famous Easter Island statues, brooded over the passengers coming and going through the terminal. The idol looked less fearsome than dull-witted and it was embedded in a steel tray filled with woodchips and potted rubber plants. Nearby, a kiosk thatched with dried banana leaves offered package tours to Easter Island, 2200 miles away and a Chilean province. I never saw anyone at the kiosk and the computer terminal behind the counter was always vacant, but the prices for round-trip airfare were surprisingly low and I was intrigued.

The flight to Easter Island from Santiago takes five hours, more or less. The ocean glitters, at first, because it is always sunny and bright off the coast of Chile but, then, the water recedes far below and has a dull sheen like a vast plate of metal and, from the heights, you see weather systems as large as Georgia grazing on the sea. Easter Island, a speck in the empty ocean, looks like a brown cow-chip floating in the green foam. The air plane has dropped from an enormous height and changes directions several times over the island and the shadow of the wing passes over the barren moors and the gaping volcano craters. Like lace around the throat of a woman in a Rembrandt painting, the island is collared in white surf.

The airport is between the island’s only town and the big volcano that rises like the prow of ship over the south tip of Rapa Nui. Between the town and the steep upthrust flank of the volcano there is a little notch where a forest has been planted, a green hollow frothy with tightly entangled trees. Otherwise the island is naked to the wind that roars off the sea. The landing strip extends the width of the island. The plane drops, rocking wing to wing on updrafts borne from the surf crashing against the beach above the runway, and, then, the jet skids across the grooved concrete, rolling to a stop a few hundred yards from the other side of the island, where equally belligerent waves batter the land. Take-off and landing both transect Rapa Nui, brown ramparts of the crater, embossed with knuckles of basalt rising over the runway.

The only town on the island, Hanga Roa, as might be expected, is mostly hotels and taverns. Restaurants offer courtyards for dining walled against the streets where the traffic is mostly small motorbikes – these establishments are basically an open alcove, a whitewashed cement lintel overhead for protection against the rain, some blue letters naming the place, and a tin-shack in the back for cooking. There are torpedo-shaped propane tanks obstructing alleyways with scrawny yellow dogs sleeping in their shadow and the hotels have big, black canisters to catch and distill rainwater on their flat roofs. All rooms open onto terraces and the terraces overlook the streets that run down to the piers and docks jutting into the sea. Local people are fishing from the jetties and the sky seems much more vast in this corner of the world, immensities of forboding dull-grey clouds always looming in one quadrant of the heavens in contrast to clear heights so translucent that you seem to see the stars in their constellations flickering through the windy blue. The small city has something of the character of a wild west town in an old movie – there are plank sidewalks and little store-fronts plastered with white-washed stucco that could be mistaken for adobe, an evangelical church with a meeting room under a tin roof supported by steel columns, dogs in little disreputable packs trotting along the deep gravel-lined gutters cut into the hillsides along the streets to control flooding in the rainy season, goats on the top of houses and chickens in backyards and, on the wind-swept slopes above the town, herds of cattle owned by the big English ranching firm that controls most of the island, thin animals with wiry legs and craggy horns.

The famous Easter Island idols have always seemed disgruntled and almost comically surly to me. In person, the statues are, if anything, even more ludicrous than they appear in pictures. Plopped atop cobble-platforms just above the point of highest tide, the big fellows glower at the ocean with blind eyes, incommunicative because the abalone mosaics once tiling their eye-sockets have crumbled away. Next to many of the statues, there are red tufa top-hats that once crowned the idols, a refrigerator-sized boulders, brick-colored stone crudely hacked into round cylindrical head-gear (pukoa). I suppose that I have always regarded the Moia as they are locally called as vaguely humorous because of their appearance, ridiculously sullen and malcontent, in Max Ernst’s collage novel Un Semaine de Bonte. In Ernst’s collages, the idols scowl at Loplop the Bird and, ineffectually, threaten nuns and Victorian ladies – their menace is more theoretical than actual. The stone on the shoulders of some of the Moia are tattooed into rounded pictographs, sharks and albatrosses, and most of the idols are diapered like sumo wrestlers, a thong strapped across their nether parts. Curiously, the fallen idols, flat on their faces, scattered here and there on the island like locomotives dropped from the skies are more impressive and awe-inspiring. You can touch them and the Chileans here for the weekend frolic about the big stone figures lying on their bellies in the heath, clambering up onto their sides so that their mates can take cell-phone pictures notwithstanding the signs everywhere decreeing the ancient idols strictly off-limits.

In town, there is a small ethnographic museum. In a corner, I found another replica of a RongoRongo tablet, also made, according to the wall placard, by A. Nadel. The roof above that display had leaked and the replica tablet looked a bit sodden to me. On the wall, some kind of long legend had once been displayed on a picture-window sized mounting. But the plaque was gone, leaving nothing behind but its shape shadowed on the wall of pre-stressed concrete and a couple of disconsolate mounting bolts. Taxis line-up at the museum and you can take one of them past the airstrip, zigzagging up the slopes of the volcano to see the ruins of the ceremonial center, Orongo, perched on the very lip of the volcano. The cab ride costs less than ten dollars but there is a $75 dollar admission fee to enter the precincts of the ritual center. The high fee is explained as underwriting conservation efforts on the Moia – apparently, the rains are always undercutting the big idols and they are frequently in need of stabilization to keep them from simply dropping like ripe fruit into the sea.

The road to Orongo goes past Mataveri airport and a little cottage that looks like something imported from the Scottish highlands. If you are feeling fit, you should ask the driver to let you off at the gravel road leading to the cottage. The building is actually the home of the local forester responsible for maintaining the eight or nine acre tract of jungle that has been restored in the notch in the volcano’s side. Behind the cottage, there is a pleasant path that runs uphill through the lush trees and, then, rises along the flank of the volcano past herds of grazing cattle to Orongo. It is a six kilometer hike and, in nice weather, an easy enough amble, not too steep and providing excellent perspectives on the village and forest below. (Be sure to carry water: there is no drinking water on the trail and the path is mostly exposed to the sub-tropical sun with no shelter. The temperature on Easter Island is always between 65 and 85 degrees, but the sun can be dangerous.)

The trail passes through some wind-battered guava groves and, then, leads across sloping moors where you will probably encounter herds of dirty-looking sheep with burdocks entangled in their wool. At its summit, the path joins the asphalt roading leading to Orongo. Some local women have booths near the visitor center where they sell curios and poorer folk simply spread out card-tables under parasols next to the parking lot to peddle small amulets carved from driftwood and little Moia probably made in China and carved from polished flakes of obsidian. The visitor center is small and shaped like a concrete A-frame. The cross-member extends beyond the triangular outer walls as a balcony from which visitors can look into the crater of Rano Kau, the volcano that forms the south headlands of the island. “Rano” is a Polynesian word that means “lake” and the crater, in fact, is mottled with many small ponds separated by lush green beds of reeds – it is a peculiarly colorful sight because none of the pools have the same tint, some are deeper than others and reflect the sky more brilliantly while the shallow puddles are brownish or, even, rust-colored so that the entire basin has pied, patchwork aspect. The steep slopes of the crater’s inner walls are an acid green, the color of vines and shrubs ascending the sheer escarpment and the rim of the crater is encrusted with knobby, seared-looking outcrops. The sacred village of Orongo is a series of terraces and platforms pinioned on the very edge of the crater where the volcano’s south flank drops in a sheer, heart-stopping cliff 800 feet to the sea. In truth, there isn’t much to see at Orongo. The platforms where the wooden temples once stood are made of intricately worked masonry and some of the walls are indented with small garage-like alcoves, little openings that looked to me like the mouths of old beehive-shaped ovens that you sometimes see in Ireland or the Aran Islands. There is thick turf atop the platforms which ascend in six-foot tall steps up the side of the volcano to the very brink of the crater and, when you walk on that sod, it feels curiously springy and alive under your feet.

Orongo overlooks the ferocious, battering sea that surges against the south headlands. From atop the volcano, you look down to a frail-looking spear of stone about a hundred yards off-shore, covered with bird guano and so chalk-colored, ghostly in the vortex of waters. (From the narrow shelf of stone below at water-level, the stone shard looks like the steeple of cathedral drowned in the water, a huge, improbably narrow spire.) Beyond the stone spear, there are two rocky islands humped up out of the sea, also bleached with bird excrement. The islands are said to be a kilometer from shore and were the holy places central to Bird Man cult. Each year, a dozen or so islanders, handsome young men groomed for the competition, swam in a race to the islands. The first youth to reach the island was crowned the Bird Man, worshiped as a semi-deity in the temples at Orongo where he served as a kind of oracle. The purpose for the swimming race was to greet the first sooty terns arriving at the island on their annual migration across the South Pacific. In season, thousands of terns roost on the two stony islets offshore and lay their eggs among the rocks. Easter Island has few natural resources. Except for lizards and insects, no animals except for migrating birds lived on the islands before the first Polynesian settlers brought rats with them, probably rodents domesticated like the Peruvian guinea pig for meat. Accordingly, the annual arrival of the sooty terns was greeted with great excitement by the islanders – eggs were a major source of protein for the population. The Bird Man cult existed in the 1860's and, although the temples and stoneworks at Orongo, were ruinous, the cult’s sacraments were still celebrated at that place on the brink of the volcano.

From the visitor center’s balconies and the trails crisscrossing the platforms and terraces at Orongo, it looks as if the volcano can be readily circumnavigated. A dusty, brown trail inscribed in the chapped, golden moor runs along the edge of the crater’s rim. At the south side of the crater, however, where the trail overlooks the ocean and the Bird Man’s islands, the path occupies a knife-edge wall of basalt, the sea crashing against rocks eight-hundred feet below on one side and the steep thorn-entangled inner wall of the volcano on the other side – only the bravest hikers venture across that lethal-looking stone bridge, where a stumble would be fatal, Chilean kids tiptoeing in single file over the precipice. It’s the kind of hike that you don’t recognize to be potentially deadly until you are committed, perched on a four-foot wide pinnacle of rock and blasted by the never-ending winds that, on these heights, are always laden with stinging particles of volcanic pumice. I started down the trail, but had been warned by my guide-book about its dangers and so stopped short of the three-hundred yards of knife-edge between volcano and sea. From the ledge where I paused, I saw terns circling high overhead, playing on the updrafts rising from the big, bulbous outcroppings of lava. The sea-passage between the two off-shore islands seemed to be roaring like a waterfall, a continual mill-race of sea pouring between the ragged stone pushed up above the waves and the mist from the sea beating on the rocks rose into the air, caught sunbeams and formed a small, evanescent rainbow over the paired islands.

Near the visitor center, the outcroppings are all carved with pictographs, handsome bas-relief images of centipedes and spiders and sharks. The carvings are rounded and difficult to see when the sun is directly overhead or when clouds flatten the light to a uniform hazy grey. But when the sun’s rays slant, in the early morning or late afternoon, the big carvings spring to life and seem to move with the transit of the sun across the boulders. The visitor center is dank and the concrete floor was tiled with dirty puddles of water when I visited. There are some Spanish and English-labeled exhibits, a few wooden talismen and some fist-sized stone divinities cut from heavy-looking unpolished iron-grey rock. In the visitor center, another replica RongoRongo tablet is displayed next to a chart showing the major pictographs in the script. (No authentic RongoRongo tablets remain on the island – 26 of the artifacts are known to exist with the finest specimens in ethnographic museums in St. Petersburg, Santiago, and Vienna; the Smithsonian institute owns two examples of RongoRongo writing but they are small, in poor condition and not ordinarily on display.) The replica RongoRongo tablet was credited to A. Nadel and the inscription described him as “Medical Doctor, Scientist, and Decoder.” Another note told me that “A. Nadel studied RongoRongo writing for half his life resulting in successfully deciphering the language.”


My readers will forgive me, I hope, if I pause to provide a brief sketch of Easter Island’s history, a place known to its Polynesian inhabitants as Rapa Nui.

One of the most remote places in the world, Easter Island is 1400 miles from the Marquesas Islands, apparently the source of the pioneers who originally settled the 68 square mile speck of land in the Pacific. Sometime after 300 AD, Polynesian-speaking people reached the island, probably traveling in catamarans and, likely, blown off course by storms in the southwest Pacific. When the settlers reached the island, it was forested with tall palm trees and over-run with flightless birds. Temperate and rich in wood and birds that could readily be captured for food, the island was hospitable and the settlers or refugees or lost mariners (or whatever they were) flourished.

According to oral traditions, many of them of questionable provenance, the Polynesians living on the island regarded themselves the children of a founder demi-God, Hatu Matu’a. Hatu Matu’a was a lawgiver and said to have brought 68 tablets of the law, inscribed in RongoRongo characters to the island. Since writing was unknown in the pre-historical Polynesian-speaking world, a realm that stretches from the Maori kingdoms in New Zealand through the Tahitian islands and Hawaii, this story of the origins of RongoRongo can not be credited. We don’t know exactly what the people on Easter Island called their land – some informants said that the island was named “Eyes looking to the Sky”; others claimed that it was called “The Little Piece of Land with Three Navels” (“Navel” in Polynesian also means “headland” and the phrase refers to the triangular shape of the island.) Tourist brochures have adapted the latter expression to claim that Rapa Nui means “the navel of the world.” This is wrong: Rapa Nui was the Polynesian name given to the island by the slave-traders who decimated the population in the 1860's – the phrase just means “Big Rapa Island.”

Nothing reliable is known about the culture that produced the great stone idols and that inscribed the RongoRongo tablets. People as diverse as Jared Diamond and Kevin Costner have constructed picturesque parables about the island’s environmental degradation and the collapse of its civilization into anarchy, but these tales are entirely speculative. It seems that the island may once have supported as many as 15,000 inhabitants – the present population is about 5,000. Anthropologists conjecture that the people were members of competing clans that may have erected the idols in tribute to their ancestors. A complex relationship between the living and their dead forbears is posited, but can not be proven. Some scholars claim that the rival clans formed some sort of alliance and may have been governed by a King or High Priest. Elaborately constructed stonework exists at several sites on the island, cyclopean walls made from hewn stone weighing as much as seven tons. These walls led Thor Heyerdahl and other to claim that the islands had been settled, or, at least, colonized by Inca sailors – a colorful theory for which this is not a scintilla of evidence. (DNA testing shows that there is no genetic connection between the ancient Inca and the Polynesians living on the island.) It is clear that the population on the island decimated the flightless birds, although this was not necessarily catastrophic – early explorers commented on the large number of domestic chickens that the island’s inhabitants raised. The forests were rapidly cut down but with what real effect we don’t know. The first Europeans to reach the island observed that it was extensively cultivated with many small farms.

Legends speak of a time of the “overthrowing of the statues,” a bloody epoch of “toppling of the idols.” Elders told missionaries that there was a long war between the clans and that the ceremonial centers were torn down and the Moia pitched face-forward from their platforms and that the incessant conflict resulted in cannibalism and the collapse of their society. But careful study of the island’s artifacts and forensic analysis of the many skeletons discovered in caves in the volcanic cliffs don’t support these stories.

Easter Island’s recorded history begins with the first European contact on April 5, 1722. A Dutch ship piloted by Captain Jacob Roggevan sighted the island when searching for some other place – it was Easter morning and, hence, the name (“Paasch Eyland”) that the Dutch gave to the little speck of land that they encountered in the southwest Pacific. (The current official Chilean name for the island is “Isla de Pascua” – the “Island of the Passion.”) Easter Island’s modern history begins with a massacre and continues through an almost unbroken series of calamities through the era of General Augusto Pinochet. Roggeveen’s seaman got into an affray with the islanders and gunned down a dozen of them. His ship departed post-haste, about 2000 to 3000 angry islanders rushing to the sea-coast to hurl boulders at the Dutchmen.

Europeans did not visit the island again until November 1760 when two small Spanish ships made harbor there. At that time, most of the stone idols were said to be standing upright, bearing their red stone caps, and glaring seaward from stone platforms – hundreds of the statues crowded the shore. Ultimately 887 of the idols have been counted on the island. James Cook visited the island briefly on his way to his death in Hawaii. The natives were said to be hostile and for the next eighty years most sailors gave the island a wide berth. Although records are unclear, we know that whalers periodically visited the islands, sometimes abducting native women and transmitting small-pox and tuberculosis to the people living there.

In 1864, Chilean slave-traders attacked the island and kidnaped half the population, seizing as many as 1500 islanders, most of them men and boys, and transporting them to work in mines on the mainland. With no one around to farm the fields, agriculture on the island failed. The Bird Man cult, which seems to have been commenced in the third decade of the 18th century – about 1730 – was extinct by 1870. The few remaining men shipped-out for Tahiti where they worked as stevedores in the sea-port villages. It was in Tahiti that the Catholic Bishop, Florentin “Tepano” Jaussen persuaded a certain old man, Metoro Tau’a Ure, an expatriate Easter Islander, to chant from a tablet of wood inscribed in RongoRongo characters. Bishop Jaussen recorded Metoro’s words, transcribing them phonetically – the language spoken on Rapa Nui is related to Polynesian in the same sense that Dutch is similar to German. Metoro’s chant was incoherent, a babble of short phrases that didn’t make any real sense. Jaussen observed, however, that Metoro read the tablet characters from the lower right-hand corner of the inscription rotating the text 180 degrees – that is, turning it upside-down – each time he reached the end of a line. An inscription in which succeeding lines are rotated in this way is called “reverse Boustrophedon” writing.

Controversy arose among linguists as to the nature of the RongoRongo inscriptions. T. H. Huxley denied that they were writing at all, asserting that the intaglio designs were made to print fabric with colorful, but purely ornamental, patterns. Gauguin incorporated the pictographs into several of his paintings, neglecting, however, the reverse boustrophedic nature of the actual inscriptions. Many scholars argued that the characters were the result of European contact, an imitation of writing that the natives had seen whalers and explorers reading. In support of this argument, linguists cited the case of the Cherokee Sequoyah who had invented a writing system for use by his tribe after studying books printed in English. No form of writing existed anywhere else in the pre-historic Polynesian-speaking world and, curiously, the pictographs carved into rock formations and the bas-relief cut into the flanks and shoulders of the idols on the island bear no real resemblance to the RongoRongo characters.

By 1880, the population on the island had declined to 111 souls. The Scottish owned Chilean corporation Williamson-Balfour took advantage of Chile’s 1883 annexation of the island to negoatiate a lease with the government in Santiago. The entire island was rented to Williamson-Balfour as a sheep ranch. A wall was built about Hanga Roa, the island’s only village, and the surviving Easter Islanders were confined inside that compound. The villagers were not allowed to leave Hanga Roa except with written permission – it was feared that the few remaining islanders would poach the sheep grazing on the windswept slopes of the island’s three small volcanoes.

Despite hardship and poverty, the population on the island gradually increased. In 1953, the government of Chile canceled the lease with Williamson-Balfour. The Chilean navy was assigned administration of the island. Insurrection on the island was feared in 1973 in the wake of the coup that toppled Salvador Allende in Santiago. The military dictator, General Augusto Pinochet sent several of his representatives to Easter Island to maintain order there, martial law was declared, and the “Isla de Pascua” was incorporated into Chile proper as a province. It was during this time that Adolf Nadel came to the island, ostensibly as a physician and surgeon, and deciphered the RongoRongo inscriptions, texts that he knew only from photographs that he brought with him from the mainland.

In partnership with the United States, the Chilean government extended the runway at Mataveri airport to cross the entire island. Although the American ambassador to Chile and several other Washington dignitaries attended the inaugural ceremonies at the airstrip in 1985, General Pinochet did not appear – he had quarreled with his United States’ sponsors over Human Rights abuses.

Today, the island’s industry is tourism. The people are well-fed and fat and servile. There is a daily flight from Santiago and the place is swarmed with tourists. People on the island were excited when the American movie-star, Kevin Costner, came there in 1993 to shoot his film “Rapa Nui.” The islanders had heard that Costner had financed the construction of a casino in the Black Hills of South Dakota after making the movie “Dances with Wolves” and they hoped that he would make a similar investment in Easter Island. At first, he expressed some interest but, in the end, Costner’s plans to build a luxury hotel and casino on the island fell-through – apparently, necessary permits were not forthcoming from the Chilean government.

When I was a young man, I persuaded my first serious girlfriend to accompany me on weekend trip to Chicago. We traveled by train from St. Paul. The Hiawatha Express, once the fastest passenger train in the world, no longer serviced the route that ran along the Mississippi river bluffs to LaCrosse and, then, crossed the tamarack swamps and cranberry bogs of Wisconsin to Milwaukee and, then, Chicago. We rode the Empire Builder, a wheezing train that originated in Seattle and was 12 hours late, crossing the snowbound northern plains. In the stony hills and dells west of Madison, the train slowed to the pace that a man could jog – the road-bed was greatly degraded and, for hours, we crept through desolate marshes over which eroded sentinels of crumbling rock brooded. Everyone was exhausted by the night spent waiting for the train in the St. Paul depot and I recall the sound of snoring in the passenger car. Of course, I was too excited to sleep.

In Chicago, I assumed the role of educator and dragged my hapless girlfriend from museum to museum. It began to rain, an oddity in January, and, then, sleet fell so that the skyscrapers were glazed with great sheets of ice that fell like the blade of a guillotine from the heights. Somehow, we made our way to Hyde Park and the Oriental Institute on the campus of the University of Chicago. The gloom in the big gallery was immemorial, the light colored like ancient papyrus, and sphinxes crouched in the museum’s corners, dusty beasts with women’s breasts. The old radiators, also, made a snoring sound so that it seemed as if the mummies rigid in their glass boxes were merely sleeping and the sleet fell outside and, near the cloak-room, there were puddles of dirty melt-water.

In a guide-book, I had read that there was a fragment of one of the Dead Sea scrolls displayed somewhere in the museum, but I never found that exhibit. Most of the glass cases contained ancient Egyptian mirrors and combs, armies of tiny figures that looked as if they might fit on a charm-bracelet, small statues of animal-headed gods, muddy-looking clay vessels and fragments of small perfume vases made of subtly iridescent glass. One display, however, made an impression on me that lingers to this day and that is the reason I am telling you about this long-ago trip to Chicago: the case was labeled: “Sumeria – the birth of Writing” and contained some ancient styluses, a replica of a famous statue showing a little bald-headed scribe, and, then, a half-dozen cuneiform tablets. At first glance, the tablets looked like clods of dried greyish mud. They were vaguely flattened, a little like a dog turd that someone has trodden upon and, when I stooped to inspect them, I saw that the tablet surface was entirely covered with tiny nicks and notches. The dashes impressed into the tablet didn’t seem to be man-made at all. Rather, they looked like the result of some random natural phenomena, as if some kind of particulate rain had uniformly scratched a thousand tiny hyphens, some of them bent and forked crooked, into the mud.

Two ideas competed in my mind: the cuneiform marks seemed strangely familiar, like a script that I had seen in a dream and, even, been able to read and, simultaneously, the inscriptions seemed malign, impenetrable, a code that it would cost both your eyesight and, then, your sanity to decipher. I was fascinated. It was as if I were peering into the reptilian eyes of a cobra or gazing into a deep and deadly abyss...

I suppose that Adolf Nadel, then, known as Arturo Taylor, felt something similar when he first gazed at the RongoRongo writing etched into the Santiago paddle and tablets. What was different, of course, in his case was that he had a gift for languages and resolved that he would devote his life, or, at least, a part of it to deciphering those inscriptions. It was probably 1955 or 1956, when Nadel first encountered the tablets and we know from his papers that his first order of business was to make the RongoRongo marks with his own hands, to transcribe what he saw onto sheets of paper so that he could work with the characters, enumerate them, and, if possible, assign phonetic values to the marks. It is curious to examine Nadel’s archives and observe how the characters change in the inscriptions that he made, how they are slowly transformed from something alien into a more familiar script, a gradual metamorphosis that occurred over thirty or more years.

Nadel arrived in Sao Paulo in 1947. At that time, he was traveling under the name Adolf Schneider. When he entered Brazil, Nadel carried only two things – he had a bundle of clothing in a military backpack from which all emblems and labels had carefully been cut and a suitcase full of German books, most of them volumes of poetry. Nadel had been born in a village in the Schwarzwald in 1917 and he was only 30 when he came to Sao Paulo. He told Brazilian authorities that he was a widower and that his wife and children had been killed in an air-raid during the war. Nadel said that he had been trained as a medical doctor and had served as a surgeon in field hospitals on the Eastern Front. He had a facility for languages and had taken a first in his Gymnasium in Greek and Latin. He read Sanskrit as well and, sometimes, told people that he had been assigned work decrypting codes as part of a special Einsatzgruppe during the war.

Nadel made himself useful in the Sao Paulo favelas, ministering to the poor as a physician. He lived simply and kept to himself. People commented on the speed at which he learned vernacular Brazilian Portuguese and, at the ease, with which he expressed himself in the idioms of the poor. At one of the hospitals where he worked, Nadel met a woman whose father was a Chilean sailor, a member of the navy who had been stationed on the Isla de Pascua. The two were married in 1950 and had three children. Nadel’s oldest son committed suicide. But his two daughters are both married to prosperous men who made their fortunes in military contracts with the Chilean regime. Most of the information embodied in this essay was provided to me by those two women.

In 1953, Nadel perceived that he was being pursued by certain shadowy figures, agents of a foreign power that had tracked him to Sao Paulo and its noisome slums. Nadel maintained a lifelong correspondence with the great German poet, Gottfried Benn, a man who was also a medical doctor, and, in his suitcase of books, one of his proudest possessions was a copy of Benn’s volume, Morgue personally inscribed to him. Nadel wrote to Benn that his pursuers had arrived in Sao Paulo and that it was only a matter of time before they kidnaped, or did other harm to him. In his letters to Nadel, carefully preserved by the Herr Doktor, Benn tried to reassure his friend that it was unlikely that anyone could injure him in Brazil, particularly in light of the very real services that he had provided to the poor. Nadel maintained that the situation was too perilous and so, in 1954, he moved with his family to Santiago, Chile. In that city, he established a medical practice under the name Arturo Taylor.

In Chile, Nadel specialized in obstetrics and gynecology. He seems to have sought wealthy and powerful patrons and did not exhaust himself providing care to the poor in the slums. Rather, Nadel’s strategy was to embed himself in Chile’s upper-class and to make himself indispensable to its grandees and leaders and intelligentsia. He was the man who knew the secrets. His clinic provided abortions, concealed rapes, and spirited-off women to remote luxury resorts in Peru or Argentina where they could have their children far from the prying eyes of Santiago’s somewhat inbred ruling class. As he built his practice, Nadel spent weekends accumulating transcripts of the writing on all 26 RongoRongo tablets, in some cases commissioning agents to photograph the artifacts for him under high-resolution lenses and with oblique light to better delineate the inscriptions. His archives contain dozens of pictures of this sort, including images taken in the ethnology museum in Leningrad that had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union at some risk to the woman bearing the photographs. Nadel wrote to Benn that he intended to decode the texts and that he would spare no effort in this task.

A few months before the wedding of his eldest daughter, Arturo Taylor changed his name Adolf Nadel. He wished his daughter to retain his true name, as is the Spanish custom, after her marriage. In 1965, Nadel volunteered to provide gynecology and obstetrical services to the peasants living on Easter Island and spent half a year in Hanga Roa. Nadel’s work with the poor women on the island was exemplary and, once again, he showed himself to be a model of tact and compassion. But, of course, his real motive in visiting the island was to learn the species of Polynesian spoken there. Nadel wrote to Benn that he assumed that modern Polynesian bore the same relationship to the tongue spoken on the island when the tablets were inscribed that present-day Hoch Deutsch bore to the German used by the poet who transcribed the Nibelungenlied. Nadel’s idea was that, with study, he could impute certain Polynesian phonetics to the
RongoRongo texts. And he worked on this task for the next three years. By 1968, Nadel had informally named RongoRongo character 76, the letter that Metoro had pronounced as “ure” or “phallus,” “Esszet”– that is the double-s consonant that appears as a letter in German orthography. At first, this identification was purely whimsical – the plump phallus-shape of character 76 bears a resemblance to the German letter.

Since Nadel’s identification of RongoRongo character 76 is a harbinger to his decryption of the script, some additional comments on this attribution will be helpful. “Esszet” is a character formed as a ligature between the “s” and “z” sounds in German. In the German word for “street,” “Strasse”, the double “s” is spelled with the “Esszet” character. (In 1996, German spelling reform eliminated the “Esszet” in many applications, substituting “ss” for the character; some German institutions, however, resisted these reforms – military typewriters and teletypes continue to print “Esszet” for the doubled “s”.) The fortunes of the character “Esszet” are inextricably connected with the Gothic type-face in which German books were printed until the end of World War Two. That type-face is called “Fraktur” and since orthography of that kind plays a part in this story, we will need to devote a paragraph or two to that subject.

Fraktur is a type-face or font utilized in German-speaking countries from the era of Gutenberg to the late nineteen-forties. Sometimes called “German characters,” the font uses angular black letters that are broken or “fractured” – hence, the name for the type-face. You can inspect samples of Fraktur characters in a Wikipedia article on that kind of font:
Several of Nadel’s letters to Benn refer to the abandonment of Fraktur print among German-speaking publishers. In 1941, Martin Bormann outlawed Fraktur as “Judische Buchstaben” – that is, “Jewish letters.” In the same decree, Bormann banned the ornate cursive form of Fraktur, the so-called “Suetterlinschrift” on the same basis. (In fact, Fraktur has no Jewish origin and is echt-Deutsch – the Luther Bible, for instance, was printed in Fraktur characters; Bormann probably intended to make German easier to read in tributary and subjugated territories – he eliminated Fraktur to serve Germany’s imperial ambitions.) Fraktur was replaced with a script that is not broken – that is, the letters are formed by continuous lines. This script is called Antiqua. Between 1945 and 1950, when the German publishing industry was literally in ruins, new books were printed, at least, briefly in Fraktur to demonstrate their anti-Nazi sympathies. Fraktur was thought to be anti-Fascist, an emblem of the old German Gemuetlichkeit that had been a victim of the Second World War. Nadel welcomed this development and commented that he was disappointed that Benn’s 1948 volume of verse, Statische Gedichte, printed in Zurich had not been published in Fraktur.

On September 11, 1973, the Chilean military staged a coup d’etat toppling the regime of the Marxist, Salvador Allende. Allende died when the army shelled the presidential palace La Moneda. General Augusto Pinochet assumed power and implemented a violent crack-down on Leftist parties in the country. Rumors reached Santiago that an insurgency had arisen on Easter Island and that the tiny province was about to fall into the hands of the Communists. Pinochet declared martial law on the island and dispatched Adolf Nadel to Hanga Roa with a garrison of heavily armed soldiers. Nadel was a supporter of Pinochet and a staunch enemy of Allende’s socialist government. He spoke Polynesian fluently, was well-regarded on the Isla de Pascua, and was rumored to possess special skills, ostensibly derived from his own war-time activities in Europe, that might come in handy in suppressing the rebellion in the Southwest Pacific. Nadel arrived with twenty troops in November 1973. Chilean authorities had attempted to re-forest part of the island and it was thought that the forestry administrator assigned that task was an Allende supporter. Nadel had the forester arrested and commandeered his residence, a pleasant cottage located on the road leading from Hanga Roa and the airport to the ruins of Orongo on the crater overlooking the village. Because there was no crime on Rapa Nui, the place had no jail. Nadel’s troops appropriated barbed wire from the English cattle ranch on the volcano’s slopes and confined the forester, with a half-dozen of his supporters, in the so-called Cannibal cave, Ana Kai Tangat, located on the rocky shore a couple miles from town. (“Ana Kai Tangat” means Cave Men Eat – either “the cave where men gather to eat” or “the cave where men are eaten”, although probably the former interpretation is correct.) Nadel interrogated the forester and his followers for several weeks, before releasing most of his prisoners. The forester allegedly attempted to escape and drowned in the surf beneath the cave. His body, and that of his lieutenant, who is also said to drowned in the escape attempt, were never recovered. Nadel spent the rest of his life on Easter Island, traveling to Santiago only to attend the weddings of his daughters – his family had remained in their mansion overlooking the Parque Forestal in the Chilean capitol. Tourists to Easter Island may see the unfortunate forester’s initials scratched among the prehistoric pictographs on the walls of the cave, although tour guides don’t often point these marks out to people visiting the site.

According to Nadel’s diaries, it was in the aftermath of interrogating the forester and one of his men that the doctor made his great discovery. Apparently, there had been some kind of fracas and the lens in Nadel’s glasses on the right side was loosened. After returning to the cottage, Nadel calmed his nerves by gazing at the RongoRongo inscriptions that he had made and that were posted on the wall of his office – a chart of the characters used in the script. While looking at the chart, Nadel’s lens was dislodged and fell onto the floor. Nadel stooped to retrieve and looking upward saw that the RongoRongo letters, when blurred looked to him like Gothic script, that is, like Fraktur. This realization was the key to Nadel’s decipherment of the enigmatic inscriptions on the tablets. RongoRongo, it turned out, was a highly stylized version of German Fraktur letters, adapted by the Polynesians into a series of pictographs closely resembling the original Gothic script.

Nadel spent the next four years proving his hypothesis that, somehow, the inhabitants of Rapa Nui had been writing in German characters. First, he set to work analyzing the glyphs according to their form, positing a “Grundtypus” for families of characters. Most accounts of RongoRongo surmise that the glyphs comprise approximately 600 different characters. Of course, written German uses the 26 letters of our alphabet plus the “Esszet”. Since Easter Island was deforested by the end of the 15th century, material on which to inscribe the tablets was rare. For this reason, the glyphs are small, less than a centimeter in height, and closely spaced. The tablets have irregular shape and are inscribed to their very edges. This kind of writing requires a great care and economy. As a result, Nadel guessed that the glyphs would be rich in “ligatures”. A “ligature” is a character that represents several separate letters or sounds – for instance, “Esszet” in German is a ligature of the “s” and “z” sound written by combining two “s” characters into a single mark. In order to save space, the Polynesian scribes devised a variety of ligatures, creating hybrid marks for letters or phonetic sounds that frequently occur together. Nadel identified 87signs that were, apparently, ligatures. He classified the remaining 513 signs into 28 categories. The apparently diversity in the glyphs was the result of a prevalence of allographs. An “allograph” is a variant way of writing the same character – for instance, a person who reads English will probably recognize several hundred variant, if related, ways to write the letter “a”. Nadel’s ultimate scheme accordingly demonstrated the existence of 28 Grundtypus characters distributed across several hundred allographs, including a number of allographs for each ligature. Even more remarkable, Nadel found that the most frequently occurring ligatures were devised from the Fraktur characters for “sch,” “ch”, “mm” and “gr”. The statistical frequency of these ligatures yielded an unsettling conclusion – not only were the Easter Island scribes writing in German characters, they seemed to be spelling German words.

Unless the Polynesians living on Easter Island were a lost tribe of Teutons, Nadel’s findings seemed inexplicable. However, Nadel persevered, corresponding with dozens of scholars world-wide to gather information as to the physical characteristics of the RongoRongo tablets. First, he made inquiries into their age. Only one of the tablets, a well-preserved specimen in St. Petersburg had been carbon-dated. The results, deemed reasonably reliable, yielded a date suggesting that the wood had been harvested, cut from a living tree, sometime after 1680. How had the tablets been made? Oral tradition collected in the late 19th century, mainly from migrant laborers in Tahiti, declared that the glyphs had been cut with either obsidian shards or a shark-tooth mounted on a hefted shaft. A number of the tablets were fluted. This suggested that the prototypes for the wood tablets were banana leaves. Banana leaves have a characteristically fluted appearance. Experiments show that a banana leaf can be placed over a wooden surface and the leaf inscribed with a stylus. The leaves are juicy and stain the wood, leaving a mark that a scribe could hollow out to make intaglio glyphs using a sharktooth or a piece of volcanic glass. The banana was reintroduced onto Easter Island sometime after the Spanish incursion in 1760 – accordingly, fluted tablets modeled on banana leaf inscriptions could have been incised after that date. Finally, Nadel made studies as the source of the wood used in the tablets. About half of the wood was from Pacific rosewood palms – trees extinct on the island after 1450, but also occasionally washing up as much-weathered and smooth driftwood. Tablets denominated A, P, and V are made of European ash and, accordingly, probably date from the period after first contact with the Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeven, in 1721. Several tablets are cut into South African Yellowwood, suggesting a source in whaling vessels that may have docked in South Africa and, then, stopped at Easter Island.

Nadel contacted scholars in Amsterdam with access to records relating to the 18th century Dutch shipping industry. Trade in the southwest Pacific in the first half of the 18th century was controlled by the Verenigda Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) – that is, the Dutch East India Company, an enormous multi-national corporation headquartered in Amsterdam. VOC ships plied the ocean between Batavia and Nova Holland (Australia) and discovered most of the islands of Indonesia and Micronesia. One of those ships was the “Verguide Draeck” (“The Gilded Dragon) captained byJacob Roggeven, the discoverer of Easter Island. The archives of the Dutch East India Company are maintained the National Records at the Hague and Nadel engaged a university student to research those materials for accounts of Roggeven’s first contact with the inhabitants of Easter Island. In a department entitled Letters and Papers of the Board of Directors, the student found several reports relating to the 1721 voyage of the “Verguide Draeck.” Attached to one of the reports was a registry of the Gilded Dragon’s crew. In that log, the student discovered that the ship’s cook was a German named Tiedmann Entfelder said to reside in Eppenhuizen with his wife and five children. A short account of the discovery of Easter Island indicated that the affray with the natives had resulted in “one man presumed dead,” an odd locution. Nadel next directed the student to travel to Eppenhuizen to determine what could be learned about Entfelder. The parish archives of the Local Dutch Reformed Church didn’t mention the family and the student concluded that he had reached a dead end in his research. On his way out of town, the student noticed an accounting firm with the name Enfeder & Co. He made further inquiries and found that the firm was several hundred years old and was originally founded by Johann Entfelder, a grandson of the sea cook on the “Gilded Dragon.” The Entfelder family had been pious Anabaptists and, indeed, members of the family to whom the student spoke said that they were Mennonites. The Eppenhuizen Anabaptists were Lammists, a sect that had broken from Algemene Doosgezmal Societeit – that is Anabaptist organized church. Further research revealed that Tiedmann Entfelder had been “lost at sea.” An old family Bible him as a “very pious man who read Holy Scripture (Hellige Schrif) daily.”

From these facts, Nadel concluded that Tiedmann Entfelder had been wounded or captured in the fight with the Easter Islanders. Nadel surmised that Entfelder survived and that he attempted to proselytize the natives of the island, probably reading to them from his Bible and, indeed, translating parts of scripture for their benefit. According to Nadel’s theory, Tiedmann Entfelder taught the islanders how to write, using German Fraktur characters. These signs were adapted by succeeding generations of islanders who copied and recopied the sacred texts given to them by Entfelder onto perishable banana leaves and the few scraps of wood existing on the denuded Isla de Pascua. After the death of Entfelder, an exact tradition as to what the signs meant was lost and the characters themselves drifted toward pictographic representations, resulting in the many allographs characterizing the RongoRongo script.

Armed with his theory, Nadel set about translating the tablets, acting on the assumption that the texts were German words written in a variant of Gothic script. Before he died in 2002, Nadel had succeeded in translating about half of the 26 texts established as authentic RongoRongo writing. The longer inscriptions, particularly the two texts incised into the Santiago oars, eluded decoding. But the shorter writings turned out to be variants on two scriptural verses: Isaiah 1:18 and I John 1: 7-9, both passages pertaining to sin and forgiveness. Isaiah 1: 18 reads:

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow, though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

I John 1: 7 - 9 tells us:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Nadel theorized that Tiedmann Entfelder was grief-stricken about the massacre inflicted on the Easter Island natives and that he had spent his life seeking to atone for that atrocity. Accordingly, the verses repeated on many of the RongoRongo tablets reflect Entfelder’s sense of guilt and shame at the cruel and violent treatment that the inhabitants of the island suffered at the hands of the Dutch invaders. To make restitution to the people of Rapa Nui, Entfelder taught them letters, how to read and write, and brought them the Holy Scriptures. The longer that he considered the problem, the more Nadel became fascinated with Tiedmann Entfelder and his motives. His final unpublished writings on the subject are mostly about 18th century piety and the Anabaptists.

Volume 71, Issue 1 (December 2000) of the Acta Archaeologica contains a 37 page long article reporting the successful decipherment of RongoRongo. The publication appears under the name Arturo Schneider. In correspondence with me, Adolf Nadel’s daughters explained that their father published under the pseudonym to avoid distracting controversy that might arise because of his role in Pinochet’s regime. (Pinochet was under house-arrest in London when the article was submitted for publication. He returned to Chile in the same month Nadel’s work was published.) At that time, Nadel was living in the resort town of Concon, 150 kilometers south of Santiago. The article in Acta Archaeologica was written in German. Several well-known Chilean magazines covered the story, translating excerpts of the scholarly article and printing glossy pictures of the Santiago RongoRongo tablets. Nadel was interviewed by reporters for Revista del Domingo, the Sunday supplement to El Mercurio, but refused photographs and insisted that he be named only by his pseudonym. This was a bit disingenuous because Nadel was well-known on Easter Island and famous in the community of RongoRongo scholars and the replica tablets that he had made for his own study were on display in Hanga Roa and at Orongo.

Nadel died in August 2002, during the height of government inquiries into atrocities committed during the Pinochet years. Both of Nadel’s daughters believe that their father’s original research on RongoRongo script has been discredited for political reasons. Shortly after his death, discoveries were made in German archives implicating Nadel in the World War II activities of the Ahnenerbe, the genetic research department of the Rasse und Siedlingshauptamt of the Schutzstaffel. A minor scandal ensued and Nadel’s membership in the Chilean Academy of Arts and Sciences was posthumously rescinded. Nadel is buried in the Parque del Mar cemetery in Cochon. The stone tablet under which he was interred bears his true name, some dates, and a parade of RongoRongo characters, inaccurately, if painstakingly, cut into the polished granite. A small cross appears above Nadel’s name. In the last decade of his life, Nadel joined the Catholic Church and attended Mass daily. The RongoRongo characters on the gravestone are little figures with their hands extended, fish, some stylized male and female genitalia, centipedes, and crabs. According to Nadel’s daughters, the signs proclaim:

Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.

To my eye, the glyphs don’t look anything like the characters in any European alphabet. But, perhaps, they have been incorrectly carved.


In his archival research on RongoRongo, Adolf Nadel examined records relating to the Easter Island diaspora, exploring the fate of the 1500 islanders kidnaped in 1864. Nadel assumed, probably correctly, that some of those forcibly transported from the island knew how to read and write in RongoRongo, and that the abduction of these scribes was a major factor in the annihilation of the script. The men and boys taken from Easter Island were nominally indentured servants – slavery per se had been abolished in Chile in 1832. Contractual documents show that the islanders were divided into two contingents. Half of the group was leased as contract laborers to silver mines in the Chanarcillo area of the Atacama desert. Conditions in the mining camps were harsh and the majority of the Easter Island laborers seem to have died within four or five years of their arrival at the mines. The balance of the Easter Islanders were indentured to the Antofagasta Nitrate and Railway Company where they were compelled to work on off-shore islands in the guano mining industry. This labor also proved to be lethal.

Nadel discovered one letter in Antofagasta company files possibly relevant to his inquiries. The letter reports on labor difficulties with the Easter Island workers. Written in barbarous, semi-literate Spanish, the relevant part of the letter reads:

Among the third crew supervised by Ugarte, there was an older fellow nicknamed “Shark Diego” on account of the hideous tattoo of a fish covering half of his brow and cheek. “Shark Diego” was malcontent and always stirring up his comrades to dissatisfaction, sometimes with the result that entire shifts were completely unproductive. Diego carried a kind of parchment scroll that he wound around his waist like a belt and, on that scroll, he was seen to inscribe certain emblems, making the marks sometimes with his own blood pricked from finger or thigh because no other ink was available to him. Diego often showed the scroll to other workers and this seemed to excite the men and make them surly and uncooperative. Diego was questioned under duress about the characters but refused to answer. Other men, also questioned in this way, said that the scroll showed characters that might be used as patterns for the tattoos that these natives are wont to mark upon their flesh, but this explanation seemed doubtful because the workers are much given to lying and the foreman said that it was his suspicion that the signs were a kind of secret code by which “Shark Diego” was communicating insurrection to his fellows. Diego said repeatedly that he wanted to return to the desert island from which he was rescued along with his mates and that he thought that it was very hard that he should be brought to these barren rocks to die. The foreman perceiving that Diego wished to return home took him to sea on the skiff and, granting him the comfort of a jug of water and a fishing line, set him adrift in a canoe. At least, this is what I was told since I was not a participant in this act. Later, Diego’s body was found, terribly battered by the surf, at an inlet on the greater Guano island and it was thought very remarkable that he should have returned from the ocean in this way. His cadaver was recognizable only by the shark tattoo on his face.


At the end of August 1920, Franz Kafka wrote a parable in a notebook now known as “Konvolut 20". The parable is called “Zur Frage der Gesetze” (‘On the Problem of the Laws”). The text concerns an indecipherable system of ancient laws originating in a class of enigmatic nobles. In the parable, Kafka writes: “The essence of a secret code is that is must remain mysterious.” Kafka suggests that the code’s power resides in the fact that it can not be deciphered.

In 1926, the German poet, Gottfried Benn, published a poem called “Osterinsel” – that is, “Easter Island.” Like Kafka’s parable, the poem embodies notions integral to German Expressionism. As such, “Easter Island” is less about anthropology than about ideas current in Berlin after World War I.

“Easter Island” is an impressively laconic and densely imagined poem. Benn rhymes the short lines ABAB and uses a complex dactylic meter (stressed - unstressed - unstressed) sometimes alternating with trochaic feet – the effect is little like a tightly rhymed “Hiawatha,” in which the stressed - unstressed patterns simulate the beat of a tribal drum. I spent a few hours trying to devise a rhymed translation of the poem, but the intricacy of the ideas, the very short lines, and the frequency of the rhymes defeated me. Someone more ingenious might be able to engineer Benn’s rhyme scheme in English, but such a feat would require rearranging his sense to an extent that the poem would be altered beyond recognition.

Easter Island Osterinsel

a island so small (eine so kleine Insel
like a bird over the sea wie ein Vogel ueber dem Meer
scarcely a clot of ash kaum ein Aschengerinnsel
and yet not forsaken by powers und doch von Kraeften nicht leer,
with stone images, scattered mit Steingebilden, losen,
sown on the plains die Ebene besaet
an almost monstrous von einer fast monstrosen
unreality. Irrealitaet.)

the great ancient words (die grossen alten Worte
– so says Ure Vaeiko – – sagt Ure Vaeiko --
have the cliffs as their habitat, haben die Felsen zu Orte,
the little live elsewhere; die kleinen leben so;
he swelters on his mat er schwaelt auf seiner Matte
before some cold fish bei etwas kaltem Fisch,
hen-slaughtering rats huehnerfeindliche Ratte
aren’t welcome at his table. kommt nicht aur seinen Tisch.)

battered by the Pacific. (von Pazifik erschlagen
By oceans threatened, von Ozeanen bedroht,
never will there be dragged ashore nie ward an Land getragen
a Polynesian boat, ein Polynesierboot.
though great feasts for returning swallows doch grosse Schwalbenfeiern
celebrate a transcendental “thou,” ein transzendental Du,
deities of bird eggs, Goettern von Vogeleiern
to whom dancers chant. Singen die Taenzer zu.)

bestial alphabets, (tierhafte Alphabete
for suns, moon, and beast fuer Sonne, Mond, und Stier
made with a shark’s tooth mit einer Haifishgraete
– boustrophedon-style – – Boustrephedonmanier --
one sign for twelve sounds, ein Zeichen fuer zwoelf Laute,
a call to that which sleeps ein Ruf fuer das, was schlief
and within itself builds und sich in Innern baute
from true structures. aus wahrem Konstruktiv.)

from what level of the soul (woher die Seelenschichten,
did the idol spring forth da das Idol entsprang
to these stone faces zu diesen Steingeschichten
and this urge to work in giant forms -- und Riesenformungszwang –,
the great ancient words die grossen alten Worte
are forever orphaned and alone sind ewig unverwandt,
defended by the cliffs haben die Felsen zu Horte
and to all unknown. Und alles Unbekannt.)

Benn imagines a primordial impulse to create giant forms embodied in the RongoRongo script, a summons that builds on the basis of an inner structure of meaning authentic to man. Benn was a pessimist and he altered the face of German literature with savage poems in Morgue and other early books depicting corpses and murder, cadavers half-devoured by rats and people dying in cancer wards. He believed that the poet had to smash through the conventions of polite literature and tear open the language that he used to restore truths obscured by civilization. In Weimar Germany, the Haifisch or shark was a symbol of murder – consider Weill and Brecht’s “Mackie Messer” (“Und der Haifische/ Der hat Zaehne”). Benn tells us that the RongoRongo script, a “bestial alphabet” is inscribed with tooth of a shark, each character bearing the weight of a dozen vocables, a summons to both the gods and artistic expression on the most grandiose level, the great, glowering stone faces of the Easter Island Moia. But these truths are inaccessible to modern men living in the jungle of their cities – the island’s script can’t be read and remains protected forever by the forbidding volcanic cliffs forming a rampart around Easter Island. Ultimately Benn’s poem is less about Easter Island than the aspirations of Weimar-era poetry.. The “giant forms” that he imagines are poetic, a new way of writing that will restore forgotten, and possibly, murderous, truths to a bereft humanity.

Of course, Benn’s poem is a fantasy. And, indeed, the poet suggests this by tracing a narrative from the island as a place of “unreality” in the first stanza to a location where the true structure of “sleeping” human nature is revealed as expressed at the conclusion of the fourth strophe. We now believe that the RongoRongo script may have been devised after the construction of the great stone idols – indeed, Nadel thought the script arose as a result of the first contact between the natives on the island and the Dutch. (Other scholars argue that the script was invented after the natives were asked to sign a treaty in 1760 with the sailors on Spanish galleons that came to the islands.) If the RongoRongo texts were persuasively deciphered and found to be lists of household goods or the names of favorite chickens or, even, rules and regulations as to when sexual intercourse is authorized with menstruating, and, therefore, tabu, women, then, of course, Benn’s romantic vision of the island and its enigmatic writings would be falsified – although, I suppose, the poem would still be true enough on its own terms. Sir Arthur Evans firmly believed that the linear B inscriptions that he discovered at Knossos and other places on Crete were epic poems probably equal to Homer. But, as we now know, linear B texts are invariably nothing more than inventories of cooking ware, pots and jugs.

Nadel met Gottfried Benn during the siege of Berlin in 1945. While the guns thundered, Nadel worked with Benn to deliver babies in a maternity ward improvised in the corridors of a subway station under Alexanderplatz. The poet seems to have suggested that Nadel depart Germany. At least this is the implication of the inscription that Benn wrote in the copy of Morgue that he presented to Nadel. Benn was born in 1886 and he inscribed the volume in an elegant cursive Suetterlin script. The words mention Nadel entering exile at Benn’s recommendation, not as a result of carmen et error (“a poem and a mistake”), a reference to Ovid’s banishment for those reasons and there are a few lines from that poet’s Tristia, slightly misremembered, written below. Benn had lost his library in an air-raid and cited Ovid from memory.


Teu Peu is a lava cave burrowing down the side of an Easter Island volcano to vent a few hundred yards from the cliff-girt shore. It is a few miles from Hanga Roa near a stone platform where a massive moia was dragged back upright in the mid-nineties by an enormous crane that a Japanese construction company had brought to the island for public relations purposes. The treadmarks from the huge tractor-driven crane are still gouged deep in the pastures near the platform. The little shaggy wild ponies that play in those fields sometimes stumble in the ruts.

The cave is a hollow tube of black lava that stretches almost six kilometers. Its vaulted ceiling rises as a convex crown of fearfully jagged rock that extends like a dike across the sun-burnt sloping moorland. In places, the roof of the cave has slumped inward and, if you have stout hiking boots and a walking stick, you can scramble down the lava talus slope left from the collapse to enter the cave. The ceiling is fractured every hundred yards or so and the broad corridor of the tube is illuminated as if by skylights. Where the cave’s vaulted roof has fallen, rain is trapped in the boulders and there is enough light and water to support banana trees which cluster in those places. It is a curious thing to see the stony crest of the lava tunnel interrupted now and then with foliage, the tops of the trees just peeking out over the mounds of hardened magma. The elongated ridge of the lava tunnel, in places collapsed to a deep, sunken channel, makes a natural boundary. In the island’s legends this is the territory where the long-ears and the short-ears fought their battles, dangerous and contested terrain, and archaeologists have noted that the subterranean tunnel is full of man-made pinch-points, stone parapets and barricades, and weapons, particularly throwing stones for use with slings have been stockpiled near some of the ambuscades.

The ruins of an old leper colony, just a few shacks and a ruined hen-house, are up-slope. Near the leper colony, the lava tunnel branches and there is a deep fissure cutting across the floor of the cave, a kind of abyss from which a chilly wind seems to breathe. On a boulder near the fissure, there are petroglyphs of a hen and her chicks. In the 1930's, a man exploring the cave found in this chamber a ledge with ten human skulls neatly arranged on the lava shelf. By local tradition, the cave in this area was called the Place of the Men with Bloody Hands, but no one remembered how this name had come to be applied to the underground sepulcher. The leper colony was then active and some of the inmates said that the bones in the cave were the victims of the small-pox epidemics that had decimated the islanders in the preceding century. The skulls were brought from underground and displayed in the lobby of the hotel in Hanga Roa as cannibal trophies.

Each skull had several marks impressed into it. An old man told the ethnologists that the marks, which were all identical, were the tattoo for “Ikh” or “fish”. “Fish,” the old man said, is the word that the islanders used for a person killed in warfare. “Fish” could be eaten as well as people slaughtered in battle. The mark chiseled into the bone was rounded and seem to be finned. Applying some imagination, the dent in the crania of the skulls seemed to be a pictograph for a fish.

A few years later, a cache of hafted obsidian war-clubs was found in the same cave, the Te Peu lava tunnel system. The war-clubs had sharp doubled-edged cutting surfaces, carefully knapped to make a lethal edge. To demonstrate the efficacy of the war-clubs, a local butcher was engaged to kill a steer with the weapon. With two swift, chopping blows, the butcher felled the animal. Later, when the beast’s skull was examined, it was found that the war-club’s edge had punched a fish-shaped fracture into the bone. This mark was identical with the cut in the skulls thought to be a pictogram. The skulls were, in fact, the remains of war victims, but what was thought to be a character or a letter was, in fact, merely a wound.