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