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Strings And Knots: Inca’s Cryptic Writing System

While Geoffrey Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales in late 14th century, the Inca scholars high up in the Andes were struggling to put their thoughts on paper, because the Incas—who were the largest, the most sophisticated pre-Columbian civilization to exist in South America, evidence of which can still be found in their monumental architecture, technology, urbanization, agriculture and complex societal hierarchies—had one embarrassing weakness: they didn’t have a written language.

The Inca people spoke Quechuan, but they didn’t have a script to write it down. So there are no written materials in that language. Everything we know about Quechuan is from records written by other cultures, especially the Spanish after their conquest of the Inca Empire. While Inca scholars failed to invent a script, they did develop an ingenious method of keeping record of information such as transactions, tax obligations, census records, dates, and possibly a lot more using a complicated system of threads and knots called a khipu or quipu.

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An example of a khipu from the Inca Empire. The more elaborate versions contained up to 1,500 or more strings.

A typical khipu consists of a horizontal string, from which hang any number of knotted and colored strings made of cotton or wool. The position of the knots in the string, the way the knots are tied, the number of turns within the knot, the color of the strings, etc. convey different values and meanings. For example, the number of turns within the knot indicate a number from one to nine; a knot tied to resemble a figure eight indicates a fixed value; a string missing a knot signifies zero; and a single knot represents 10 or multiple powers of 10, depending on its relative position in the string. Together with other characteristics, such as the color of the string, twist directions, and knot patterns, a khipu can create a potentially huge number of meanings.

The choice of medium—textile, in this case—to store and communicate knowledge is understandable because to the Inca, cloth was a widely used marker of status, wealth and political authority.

“Fibers were the heart of Andean technologies of all kinds, even long before the Inca, and so it doesn't surprise me that people would have thought of using khipu perhaps for some sort of writing system,'' said Dr. Heather Lechtman, an archaeologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Not everyone could read a khipu. Only educated khipu readers called khipu kamayuq could. They were often employed by rulers, governors and village chiefs to keep bureaucratic records. The khipu kamayuqs also performed other duties like keep track of taxation, wages, maintained a record of economic output, and ran a census.

There are no khipu kamayuqs today, and the art of making and reading khipu is lost. We can only guess what these knotted strings encoded.

Research seems to suggest that khipu were used for numerical records, or bookkeeping. The Inca number system was based on ten, just like ours are, but Gary Urton, professor of anthropology at Harvard, believe that the khipu used a binary system which could record phonological or logographic data. If true, these tangled knots could contain many hidden stories of battles and conquests, about royal blood-lines, and who knows what else. We may have already decoded the first word from a khipu—the name of a village, Puruchuco, which Gary Urton believes was represented by a three-number sequence, similar to a ZIP code. If this conjecture is correct, khipus are the only known example of a complex language recorded in a 3-D system.

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After the Spanish invasion, the newcomers deliberately destroyed thousands of khipu suspecting the knotted strings to contain secret letters or messages that could be used by the rebels against the invasion. The Spanish had reasons to believe that. One Spanish military leader recalls an encounter he and his men had with some khipu keepers along a mountain road shortly after the conquest of the Andean region. As soon as the khipu keepers saw the Spaniards, they immediately untied some of the knots in the khipu they were carrying and retied them in another section of the khipu, thereby changing the information it contained.

Another account tells of Spanish travelers who came upon an old Inca man who tried to hide the khipu he was carrying. Under questioning, the Indian claimed the khipu recorded the activities of the conquerors, ''both the good and the evil.'' The Spanish burned the khipu and punished the Indian.

Today, only a few hundred khipu are known to exist. Some are in museum, while others are in the possession of the local communities. They are regarded as a powerful symbol of heritage, and are handled only by dignitaries. Even today, khipu are used in traditional ceremonies, even though they can be no longer read.

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