Throughout the 13-year history of the Endangered Alphabets Project, people have periodically asked me whether I planned to include khipu (or quipu), the knotted-string information system used by the Incas. I didn’t, because like most people I assumed they were numerical devices like abaci, or like the knotted rope use to calculate a ship’s speed through the water (hence the term “knots” instead of miles per hour).
Well, I was dead wrong, though in my defence the crucial breakthroughs in khipu research have happened since I started working on the Alphabets. But the new information challenges both our understanding of history and our understanding of writing itself.
The first major discovery was made by a faculty member and a first-year student at Harvard who compared a Spanish census document from the 1670s–a reassessment of six clans living around the village of Recuay in the Santa valley region of western Peru—with a set of six khipus from the same time and region that were generally thought to be recording the same things.
The Spanish document listed 132 tribute payers; there were 132 cords on the khipus, part of a collection gathered by the faculty member, Gary Urton. The khipus seemed to be a form of tactile spreadsheet. But the undergraduate, Manny Medrano, working on his own over Spring Break, discovered that the colors of the strings, the bias of the winding, and the relationship between primary strings and additional add-ons conveyed more information: social status and name, for example.
This new insight changed our entire view of the Incas.
“The khipus are incredible,” Madrano told NPR, “because they compel us to interpret history in multiple dimensions. South America’s the only continent besides Antarctica on which no civilization invented a system of graphical writing for over 10,000 years after the first people arrived. And what that means in the course of history is that the Incas are often defined by `what they lack’ and with a `despite’ clause. In other words, this civilization who never invented the wheel, never invented markets and lacked a system of graphical writing are often defined as never having stumbled upon the wonders of civilization. And this project is aimed at reversing that incorrect narrative.”
Khipus not only compel us to re-interpret history, but to re-interpret reading and writing. One of the most telling features of the Spanish observation of the Incas is that they could never understand how the Incas “read” the khipu, accustomed as they were to a notion of writing that it should be read visually, and that it was largely color-irrelevant. Khipu recorded information in tactile, spatial and chromatic terms; it has taken four centuries for us to broaden our understanding of writing to the point where we can start to interpret what they meant.
Interestingly, all the news reports I’ve (just) read about this discovery still implicitly cling to our own definition of writing—namely, that it has to involves symbols that represent the sounds of speech.
Madrano rightly criticizes our view of history when we say, “Wow, the Incas seemed to be pretty advanced for their time but they didn’t know about the wheel/ money/writing, sheesh, I dunno….”
The New Scientist article, like the other accounts I read, rounded off the Urton/Madrano discovery by asking, in effect, “Yeah, but could khipu be used for storytelling? Like real writing?”
And the answer seems to be, Well, what do you know? Maybe so.
Sabine Hyland, an ethnographer at St Andrews University in the UK, was able to study two khipus that villagers said were narrative epistles created by local chiefs during a rebellion against the Spanish in the late 18th century. By that time, the people spoke Spanish too, so there are corresponding written records.
“Each khipu had hundreds of pendant cords,” wrote the New Scientist, “and they were more colourful and complex than anything she had ever seen. It was clear the various animal fibres used could only be identified by touch” and each had its own significance.
The pendants came in 95 different combinations of colour, fibre type and direction of ply, and she hypothesized that each combination might correspond to a spoken syllable. Some of the syllables seem to correspond to names of people who were involved in the rebellion, though research is, as they say, ongoing. The khifu are such a complex, even comprehensive system it’s quite possible they might combine several different forms of meaning, the tactile infographics of their time and place.
One theory is that the khipu Hyland examined, which were strikingly different from most others, were actually an updating, a reinvention of the khipu to incorporate this phonetic element.
I’m in two minds about this interpretation. On the one hand, it says a great deal about the breadth and flexibility of the khipu as a system that it could have been extended to incorporate indigenous and available materials for this new purpose.
On the other hand, I kind of resent the idea that it may have been only because of Spanish influence that this more-like-what-we-call-writing element was added, and that khipu, no matter how subtle and complex, were still missing a trick without it.
All this research, as I say, has come together in the past half-decade or so, and we have no idea what else the khipu were used for, how they were read, or how they played into the extraordinarily complex infrastructure of the Incan people.
I just want to leave you by underlining the one idea that keeps cropping up when archaeology and/or paleography examine and interpret the way meaning was recorded and transmitted in times and civilizations past or distant: our own definition of writing is far narrower and more local than we realize, and if we keep judging other peoples by our own standards, we will miss discoveries of extraordinary importance. Even if we’re staring right at them. Even if we’re holding them right in our hands.
9.8623° S, 76.1697° W