Judging from the archives, this hasn't been discussed here for some years,
but I was hoping to get some reactions or opinions, having just waded
through the book. What do people think of Steven Fischer's 'Rongorongo'
(OUP, 1997)? (For those of you who may not have read it, there is a summary
of Fischer's perspective as well as a critique by Jacques Guy at

My thoughts:
1) The section dealing with the history of decipherment attempts, which
comprises over half the book, is a very interesting and very thorough
summary of research of the sort that can't be done for most topics in
anthropology, archaeology, or linguistics, because rongorongo studies is
such a tiny field. However, Fischer seems to have the annoying tendency to
class people by their national origin and, while not demeaning to other
national groups, seems to have a lot invested in the national background of
would-be-decipherers. He is also extremely arrogant and vituperative at
times, which makes for difficult reading, and certainly isn't good from a
history of science perspective. Strikingly, he condemns and insults
deceased researchers with far greater vigour than living ones (even ones
with whom he disagrees violently).

2) The 'decipherment' itself is very weak, and the claims made are limited.
He identifies rongorongo as a mixed logographic/semasiographic script and
purports to have identified certain texts as chants of a certain form. From
what I can see, Fischer's claims in the book are weaker than those he has
made elsewhere (including the web site linked above). Even at their most
extreme, the claims for decipherment are much weaker than our state of
present knowledge of, say, Linear A.

3) From my perspective (which is more archaeological than linguistic,
admittedly), Fischer's most interesting positive contribution is the theory
that the rongorongo is a script (consisting of logograms and semasiograms,
possibly) but that it is of post-contact origin, arising only after the
inhabitants of Rapanui witnessed Spanish writing in 1770 (the first
substantial contact with the West). The idea is that they picked up the
notion of writing but not much else and adapted their earlier pictographic
tradition into a script (stimulus diffusion). I'm not sure the case has been
proven, but I was certainly surprised that this hypothesis hadn't been given
much attention by earlier scholars.

Assuming that there are no rongorongo experts on the list (which I don't
know for a fact), I'm hoping that someone else has some interest in this
subject other than me.

Stephen Chrisomalis
Department of Anthropology, McGill University