How the Inca Used Intricately-Knotted Cords, Called Khipu, to Write Their Histories, Send Messages & Keep Records

Those of us who learned to write in a (mostly) phonetic language learned to take it for granted that writing should correspond (roughly) to sound. Then we learned of the pictographs, ideographs, and logograms of the Chinese alphabet, or of Ancient Egyptian or Mayan, or of other non-phonemic orthographies, and we were forced to revise earlier assumptions. Those who pursue the study of symbolic systems even further will eventually come to meet khipu, the Incan system of record-keeping that uses intricately knotted rope.

Khipu, long thought an abacus-like means of bookkeeping, has recently been acknowledged as much more than that, countering a scholarly view Daniel Cossins summarizes at New Scientist as the belief that the Incas, despite their technological and political “sophistication… never learned to write.” This European logocentrism (in the Derridean sense), persisted for centuries despite some evidence to the contrary four hundred years ago.




For example, the poet Garcilaso de la Vega, son of an Incan princess and Spanish conquistador, wrote in 1609 that the Incas “recorded on knots everything that could be counted, even mentioning battles and fights, all the embassies that had come to visit the Inca, and all the speeches and arguments they had uttered.” There may be some hyperbole here. In any case, the point “was moot,” notes Cossins, “because no one could read any of them."

Like mostly illiterate cultures in the West and East that relied on scribes for record-keeping, Incan civilization relied on khipumayuq, “or the keepers of the khipus, a specially trained caste who could tie and read the cords.” As explorer Alejandro Chu and Patricia Landa, Conservator of the Incahuasi Archeological Project, explain in the National Geographic video at the top, these specialists died, or were killed off, before they could pass their knowledge to the next generations.

But the linguistic code, it seems, may have been cracked—by an undergraduate freshman economics major at Harvard named Manny Medrano. As Atlas Obscura reported last year, Medrano, working under his professor of Pre-Columbian studies, Gary Urton, spent his spring break matching a set of six khipu against a colonial-era Spanish census document. He was able to confirm what scholars had long assumed, that khipu kept track of census and other administrative data.

Moreover, though, Medrano “noticed that the way each cord was tied onto the khipu seemed to correspond to the social status of the 132 people recorded in the census document. The colors of the strings also appeared to be related to the people’s first names.” (Now a senior, Medrano’s findings have been published in the journal Ethnohistory; he is first author on the paper, “indicating that he contributed the bulk of the research”).

This research shows how khipu can tell stories as well as record data sets. Medrano built upon decades of work done by Urton and other scholars, which Cossins summarizes in more detail. Other ethnographers like St. Andrews’ Sabine Hyland have had similar epiphanies. Hyland chanced upon a woman in Lima who pointed her to khipus in the village of San Juan de Collata. The villagers “believe them to be narrative epistles,” writes Cossins, “created by local chiefs during a rebellion against the Spanish in the late 18th century.”

After careful analysis, Hyland found that the khipus' pendant cords “came in 95 different combinations of colour, fibre type and direction of ply. That is within the range of symbols typically found in syllabic writing systems.” She has since hypothesized that khipu “contain a combination of phonetic symbols and ideographic ones, where a symbol represents a whole word.”

Hyland grants it's possible that later khipus made after contact with the Spanish may have absorbed an alphabet from Spanish writing. Nevertheless, these findings should make us wonder what other artifacts from around the world preserve a language Western scholars have never learned how to read.

Attempts to decipher khipus use all sorts of comparative methods, from comparing them with each other to comparing them with contemporary Spanish documents. But one innovative method at MIT began by comparing Incan khipu with student attempts to create their own rope language, in a 2007 course led by the “Khipu Research Group," a collection of scholars, including Urton, from archeology, electrical engineering, and computer science.

“To gain insight into this question” of how the code might work, the syllabus notes, “this class will explore how you would record language with knots in rope.” Maybe you’d rather skip the guesswork and learn how to make a khipu the way the Inca may have done? If so, see the series of six videos above by Harvard Ph.D. student in archeology, Jon Clindaniel. And to learn as much about khipu as you might ever hope to know, check out the Khipu Database Project at Harvard, whose goal is to collect “all known information about khipu into one centralized repository.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

You’re Only As Old As You Feel: Harvard Psychologist Ellen Langer Shows How Mental Attitude Can Potentially Reverse the Effects of Aging

You’re only as old as you feel, right? The platitude may be true. In a scientifically verifiable sense, “feeling”—a state of mind—may not only determine psychological well-being but physical health as well, including the natural aging processes of the body.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has spent decades testing the hypothesis, and has come to some interesting conclusions about the relationship between mental processes and bodily aging. In order to do the kind of work she has for decades, she has had to put aside the thorny “mind-body” problem—a longstanding philosophical and practical impasse in figuring out how the two interact. “Let’s forget about how you get from one to the other,” she tells CBS This Morning in a 2014 interview above, “and in fact see those as just words…. Wherever you’re putting the mind, you’re necessarily putting the body.”




What happens to the one, she theorized, will necessarily affect the other. In a 1981 experiment, which she called the “counterclockwise study,” she and her research team placed eight men in their late 70s in a monastery in New Hampshire, converted to transport them all to 1959 when they were in their prime. Furniture, décor, news, sports, music, TV, movies: every cultural reference dated from the period. There were no mirrors, only photos of the men in their 20s. They spoke and acted as though they had traveled back in time and gotten younger.

The results were extraordinary, almost too good to be true, she felt. “On several measures,” The New York Times reported in 2014, “they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce." The "counterclockwise" participants "were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller…. Perhaps most improbably, their sight improved” as well as their hearing.  Given the seemingly miraculous outcomes, tiny sample size, and the unorthodoxy of the experiment, Langer decided not to publish at the time but continued to work on similar studies looking at how the mind affects the body.

Then, almost thirty years later, the BBC contacted her about staging a televised recreation of the monastery experiment, “with six aging former celebrities as guinea pigs,” who were transported back to 1975 by similar means. The stars “emerged after a week as apparently rejuvenated as Langer’s septuagenarians in New Hampshire.” These experiments and several others Langer has conducted over the years strongly suggest that chronological age is not a linear clock pushing us inexorably toward decline. It is, rather, a collection of variables that include psychological well-being and something called an “epigenetic clock,” a mechanism that UCLA geneticist Steve Horvath has discovered directly correlates with the aging process, and may show us how to change it.

But while Horvath has yet to answer several pressing questions about how certain genetic mechanisms interact, Langer has put such questions aside in favor of testing the mind-body connection in a series of experiments, which engage the aging—or people with specific conditions—in studies that stretch their minds. By creating illusions like the monastery time machine, Langer has found that perception has a significant effect on aging. If we perceive ourselves to be younger, healthier, more capable, more vibrant, despite the messages about how we should look and act at our chronological age, then our cells and tissues get the message. Not only can a change in perception affect aging, but also, Langer theorizes, obesity, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic or life-threatening conditions. Much of her research here gets spelled out in her book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.

“Whether it’s about aging or anything else,” says Lager, “if you are surrounded by people who have certain expectations for you, you tend to meet those expectations, positive or negative.” The social expectation for the aging is that they will get weaker, less capable, and more prone to deterioration and illness. Ignoring these expectations and changing our perception of what chronological age means—and doesn’t mean—Langer says, seems to actually slow or partially reverse the decline and to ward off disease. Those psychological changes can come about through interventions like caring for children, plants, or animals and using mindfulness practices to learn how to be attentive to change.

You can read more about Langer and Horvath’s specific findings on aging, psychology, and epigenetics at Nautilus.

Note: you can get Langer's book--Counterclockwise Mindful Health and the Transformative Power of Possibility--as a free audiobook through Audible.com's free trial program. Get more details on the free trial here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Harvard Launches a Free Online Course to Promote Religious Tolerance & Understanding

It is difficult to have discussions in our current public square without becoming forced into false choices. Following Marshall McLuhan, we might think that the nature of the digital medium makes this happen, as much as the content of the messages. But some messages are more polarizing than others—with arguments over religion seemingly primed for binary oppositions.

That many nuanced positions exist between denying the validity of every religion and proclaiming a specific version as the only one true path shows how durable and flexible religious thought can be. The widespread diversity among religions cannot mask the significant degree of commonality between them, in all human societies, leading scholars like anthropologist Pascal Boyer to conclude, as he writes in Religion Explained, that “the explanation for religious beliefs and behaviors is to be found in the way all human minds work…."

I really mean all human minds not the just the minds of religious people or some of them. I am talking about human minds, because what matters here are properties of minds that are found in all members of our species with normal brains.

Famed Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky, who happens to be an atheist, claims that somewhere around 95% of the human population believes in some sort of supernatural agency or religious set of explanations, and that such faith has “undeniable health benefits,” and is thus biologically motivated.




The real question, he reluctantly admits, is not why so many people believe, but “what’s up with the 5% of atheists who don’t do that?" The question needn’t imply there’s anything abnormal, inferior, or superior, about atheists. Variations don’t come with inherent values, though they may eventually become the norm.

But if we accept the well-supported thesis that religion is a phenomenon rooted in and naturally expressed by the human mind, like art, language, and literature, we would be negligent in remaining willfully ignorant of its expressions. And yet, Diane Moore, director of Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project, tells the Huffington Post, “widespread illiteracy about religion… spans the globe” and “fuels bigotry and prejudice and hinders capacities for cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.”

Harvard aims to help change attitudes with their Religious Literacy Project, which offers free online courses on the world’s five major religions—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism—through their edX platform. The first course of the series, taught by Moore, is self paced. “Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures” surveys the methodology of the project as a whole, exploring “case studies about how religions are internally diverse, how they evolve and change through time, and how religions are embedded in all dimensions of human experience.” (See a promo video at the top and a teaser for the project as a whole above.)

Understanding religion as both a universal phenomenon and a set of culturally and historically specific events resolves misunderstandings that result from oversimplified, static stereotypes. Studying the historical, theological, and geographical varieties of Islam, for example, makes it impossible to say anything definitive about one singular, monolithic “Islam,” and therefore about Muslims in general. The same goes for Christians, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, etc. The fact that religion is embedded in nearly every facet of human experience, writes Moore in an introductory essay for the project, means that we can credit it with the “full range of agency from the heinous to the heroic," rather than flipping between these extremes to score chauvinist points or invalidate entire realms of social life.

We’ve previously featured one of the courses from the big five series of classes, “Buddhism through its Scriptures.” The method there applies to each course, which all engage rigorously with primary sources and scholarly commentary to get students as close as possible to understanding religious practice from both the inside and the outside. Granted this canonical approach ignores the practices of millions of people outside the big five categories, but one could ostensibly apply a similar academic rubric to the study of syncretisms and indigenous religions all over the world.

Professor Moore’s “Religious Literacy” class—which you can audit free of charge or take for a certificate for $50—promises to give students the tools they need to understand how to survey religions critically, yet sympathetically, and to “interpret the roles religions play in contemporary and historic contexts.” Like it or not, religions of every kind remain pervasive and seemingly intractable. Rather than fighting over this fact of life, we would all do better to try and understand it. Begin to enlarge your own understanding by signing up for "Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures" for free.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Tattoos Can Now Start Monitoring Your Medical Conditions: Harvard and MIT Researchers Innovate at the Intersection of Art & Medicine

Once reserved for rebels and outliers, tattoos have gone mainstream in the United States. According to recent surveys, 21% of all Americans now have at least one tattoo. And, among the 18-29 demographic, the number rises to 40%. If that number sounds high, just wait until tattoos go from being aesthetic statements to biomedical devices.

At Harvard and MIT, researchers have developed "smart tattoo ink" that can monitor changes in biological and health conditions, measuring, for example, when the blood sugar of a diabetic rises too high, or the hydration of an athlete falls too low. Pairing biosensitive inks with traditional tattoo designs, these smart tattoos could conceivably provide real-time feedback on a range of medical conditions. And also raise a number of ethical questions: what happens when your health information gets essentially worn on your sleeve, available for all to see?

To learn more about smart tattoos, watch the Harvard video above, and read the corresponding article in the Harvard Gazette.

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Advanced Algorithms: A Free Course from Harvard University

From Harvard professor Jelani Nelson comes "Advanced Algorithms," a course intended for graduate students and advanced undergraduate students. All 25 lectures you can find on Youtube here.

Here's a quick course description:

"An algorithm is a well-defined procedure for carrying out some computational task. Typically the task is given, and the job of the algorithmist is to find such a procedure which is efficient, for example in terms of processing time and/or memory consumption. CS 224 is an advanced course in algorithm design, and topics we will cover include the word RAM model, data structures, amortization, online algorithms, linear programming, semidefinite programming, approximation algorithms, hashing, randomized algorithms, fast exponential time algorithms, graph algorithms, and computational geometry"

"Advanced Algorithms" will be added to our collection of Free Computer Science Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Algorithms for Big Data: A Free Course from Harvard

Algorithms for Big Data: A Free Course from Harvard

From Harvard professor Jelani Nelson comes "Algorithms for Big Data," a course intended for graduate students and advanced undergraduate students. All 25 lectures you can find on Youtube here.

Here's a quick course description:

"Big data is data so large that it does not fit in the main memory of a single machine, and the need to process big data by efficient algorithms arises in Internet search, network traffic monitoring, machine learning, scientific computing, signal processing, and several other areas. This course will cover mathematically rigorous models for developing such algorithms, as well as some provable limitations of algorithms operating in those models. Some topics we will cover include":

  • Sketching and Streaming. Extremely small-space data structures that can be updated on the fly in a fast-moving stream of input.
  • Dimensionality reduction. General techniques and impossibility results for reducing data dimension while still preserving geometric structure.
  • Numerical linear algebra. Algorithms for big matrices (e.g. a user/product rating matrix for Netflix or Amazon). Regression, low rank approximation, matrix completion, ...
  • Compressed sensing. Recovery of (approximately) sparse signals based on few linear measurements.
  • External memory and cache-obliviousness. Algorithms and data structures minimizing I/Os for data not fitting on memory but fitting on disk. B-trees, buffer trees, multiway mergesort.

"Algorithms for Big Data" will be added to our collection of Free Computer Science Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Learn Digital Photography with Harvard University’s Free Online Course

Harvard Course on Positive Psychology: Watch 30 Lectures from the University’s Extremely Popular Course

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Harvard Course on Positive Psychology: Watch 30 Lectures from the University’s Extremely Popular Course

Several years back Tal Ben-Shahar taught a course on Positive Psychology at Harvard, which became, at least for a while, the most popular course at the university. About the course NPR wrote: "Twice a week, some 900 students attend Tal Ben-Shahar's class on what he calls 'how to get happy.' ... His class offers research from the relatively new field of positive psychology, which focuses on what makes people happy, rather than just their pathologies."

Available in an admittedly grainy format, you can watch the 30 lectures from that course above, or over on YouTube. According to the original syllabus, topics discussed include "happiness, self-esteem, empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, music, spirituality, and humor."

If you're interested in delving deeper into Positive Psychology, we'd recommend reading the works of Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania professor who effectively invented the field. Or better yet, you can sign up for a Coursera course that Seligman helped create--Positive Psychology: Well-Being for Life. The next round of that course starts on August 21st.

For related subjects visit our collection of Free Psychology Courses, a subset of our meta collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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