Researchers Say New Find of Khipu Strings May Help Unravel the Inca Record-keeping System
Archaeologists have discovered a collection of khipu (quipu) —a system of colored strings and knots people used to record various matters and send messages in the pre- and post-colonial eras in Peru—and are studying them in possible connection to an Inca invasion of southern Peru in the late 15th century.
Deciphering khipu has eluded scientists, but they suspect the ones found in 2014 in a food-storage building in the Incahuasi ruins about 100 miles (161 kilometers) south of Lima recorded supplies of provisions for the troops who were massed there to subjugate the south. Incahuasi became an Inca administrative center in the years after the invasion.
Researchers hope the relatively simple khipu at Incahuasi may help them decipher more complex ones from other places in the Inca Empire that possibly recorded calendrical, legal, administrative, and even historical information. Khipu, most of which date from 1400 to 1532, have been described as a three-dimensional binary code. The Spanish destroyed most khipu, but about 870 remain in museums and private collections.
The Inca Empire; note the vibrant green color to the south, which the Inca invaded in the late 15th century. (Public Domain)
“We can look at how the chili pepper khipu differs from the peanut khipu and from the corn khipu in terms of their color and other characteristics and we can build up a kind of sign vocabulary of how they were signifying this or that thing in their world,” Gary Urton, a khipu expert, told The New York Times. Urton, with the Khipu Database Project, is analyzing the collection of khipus with archaeologist Alejandro Chu, who is head of excavations at Incahuasi.
Duplicate khipu discovered in Incahuasi are also bearing out an observation made by a 17th century Spaniard, Garcilaso de la Vega, who wrote:
“Although the quipucamayus [khipu-makers/keepers] were as accurate and honest as we have said, their number in each village was in proportion to its population, and however small, it had at least four and so upwards to twenty or thirty. They all kept the same records, and although one accountant or scribe was all that would have been necessary to keep them, the Incas preferred to have plenty in each village and for each sort of calculation, so as to avoid faults that might occur if there were few, saying that if there were a number of them, they would either all be at fault or none of them.”
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The people doing the excavations at Incahuasi have found duplicate sets of khipu tied together. Researchers think the Inca made duplicates to “keep the books” more accurately, the Times reports.
The Incahuasi khipu possibly record different foodstuffs by color, knot, or another signifier. For example, corn, chili peppers, peanuts, and beans might all have different markers, and the researchers intend to compare them to a large database of other khipu to ascertain if this is so.
A detailed and colored khipu. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Khipu consist of up to 2,000 strings, often made of llama or alpaca hair, hanging from a main cord. The position of the knots and different twisting and coloring of the strings are arranged in a base-10 system. A single khipu could record and display as many as 1,500 units of information, says Asian Scientist magazine. That compares to the capacity of Egyptian hieroglyphs to record 800 bits of information and fewer than 1,500 for Sumerian cuneiform.
An account of an offering of animals to various gods in Sumerian cuneiform; khipu are thought to have more information bits than cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs. (Rama/CC BY SA 2.0)
Records by Spanish colonialists tell of land disputes where people would take khipu to court and use them to justify land ownership claims, the Times reports Mr. Chu as saying. Scribes read the khipu and court clerks recorded the information during both the pre-contact and colonial eras.
A scribe and khipu. (Public Domain)
Asian Scientist also reports that researchers have wondered why the advanced Inca did not have a writing system - a conundrum they call the Inca Paradox. Scholars had thought khipu were merely for bookkeeping and censuses. But more recent analyses have led some researchers to conclude khipu may have been a form of writing.
A string of khipu in a museum in Lima. (Public Domain)
“Indeed, Spanish historical accounts indicate that native people considered khipu as narratives,” the Asian Scientist says. “One account describes an encounter between Spanish travelers and an old man, who claimed that the khipu he was carrying contained a record of everything the conquistadors had done, ‘both the good and the bad.’ (The Spanish burned the khipu and punished the man.) In another account, a Jesuit priest tells of a woman who used a khipu to write a confession of her entire life.”
Featured Image: An Inca quipu, from the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru. Source: Claus Ableiter/CC BY SA 3.0
By: Mark Miller