Thursday, January 14, 2016

Decoding Incan Khipus

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Close up of Khipu cords dangling from the main strand. From the Khipu database project

The New York Times ran an article on January 2nd about progress in understanding the Incan recording system- the khipu (or Quipu) system of knots. These constructions involve knotted ropes all attached to a main cord, with the color of the rope, the type and position of the knot, and possible other factors contributing to the final meaning of the object. A scribe would "read" a khipu by running fingers along the length of the dangling strands.
Since colonial times it has been known that the Inca sent khipus via messenger to communicate throughout the empire, so they presumably had content beyond the number code which researchers have deduced. But the lack of context for the extant khipus has hampered any inferences about these additional meanings. The Times article discusses the 2013 discovery of 34 khipus in place in the ruins of a garrison area in the Inca military base of Incahuasi (or Inkawasi).  These chips were found next to storage areas for specific goods-- one khipu near a storage area for peanuts, and another near where chili peppers were stored, and so forth. This context may allow researchers to see if "peanut" appears as a unique feature in the khipu from that storage area, and whether an analogous marking might designate the "chili pepper" khipu. 
One hint that this might be correct is that in some locations several khipus  were tied together, and the tied-together ones yielded very similar number counts. One could imagine several people keeping inventory during the day and returning their khipu to a central figure for reconciliation. This type of cross-checking was hinted at by an Inca writer, Guaman Poma, in 1609.
Ultimately, the understanding of the information encoded in these objects would require many more examples, found in good context, as with these 34.