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Date: Mon, 18 Jul 2011 00:36:10
From: Portside Moderator <moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG>
Subject: Questioning the Inca Paradox

Questioning the Inca Paradox
Did the civilization behind Machu Picchu really fail
to develop a written language?
By Mark Adams
July 12, 2011

Historic Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, PeruWhen the Yale
University history lecturer Hiram Bingham III
encountered the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru 100 years
ago, on July 24, 1911, archaeologists and explorers
around the world (including Bingham himself) were
stunned, having never come across a written reference to
the imperial stone city. Of course, the absence of such
historical records was in itself no great surprise. The
Inca, a technologically sophisticated culture that
assembled the largest empire in the Western Hemisphere,
have long been considered the only major Bronze Age
civilization that failed to develop a system of writing-
a puzzling shortcoming that nowadays is called the "Inca

The Incas never developed the arch, either-another
common hallmark of civilization-yet the temples of Machu
Picchu, built on a rainy mountain ridge atop two fault
lines, still stand after more than 500 years while the
nearby city of Cusco has been leveled twice by
earthquakes. The Inca equivalent of the arch was a
trapezoidal shape tailored to meet the engineering needs
of their seismically unstable homeland. Likewise, the
Incas developed a unique way to record information, a
system of knotted cords called khipus (sometimes spelled
quipus). In recent years, the question of whether these
khipus were actually a method of three-dimensional
writing that met the Incas' specific needs has become
one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Andes.

No one disputes that the Incas were great collectors of
information. When a battalion of Spanish conquistadors,
led by the ruthless Francisco Pizarro, arrived in 1532,
the invaders were awed by the Inca state's organization.
Years' worth of food and textiles were carefully
stockpiled in storehouses. To keep track of all this
stuff, the empire employed khipucamayocs, a specially
trained caste of khipu readers. The great 16th-century
Spanish chronicler Pedro Cieza de Le??n recalled that
these men were so skilled that "not even a pair of
sandals" escaped their annual tallies. The Spaniards,
who were no slouches themselves in the bureaucracy
department-Pizarro's landing party included 12 notaries-
observed that the Incas were remarkably skilled with
numbers. For many years during the 16th century, says
Frank Salomon, a professor of anthropology at the
University of Wisconsin, Inca khipucamayocs and Spanish
accountants would square off in court during lawsuits,
with the khipu numbers usually deemed more accurate.

Detail of an Inca-era khipu Individual khipus seem to
have varied widely in color and complexity; most of the
surviving examples generally consist of a pencil-thick
primary cord, from which hang multiple "pendant" cords.
From those pendants hang ancillary cords called
"subsidiaries." One khipu has more than a thousand
subsidiary cords. Sixteenth-century eyewitness accounts
describe khipucamayocs studying their khipus intensely
to access whatever details had been recorded on them.
According to Spanish chronicles of the 1560s and 1570s,
some khipus appeared to contain information of the sort
that other cultures have typically preserved in writing,
such as genealogies and songs that praised the king. One
Jesuit missionary told of a woman who brought him a
khipu on which she had "written a confession of her
whole life."

The Spaniards' institutional response to this singular
accounting system, originally benign, shifted in 1583,
when Peru's nascent Roman Catholic church decreed that
khipus were the devil's work and ordered the destruction
of every khipu in the former Inca empire. (This was the
heyday of the Spanish Inquisition, and the church was
making a major push to convert natives from their
pantheistic state religion.) By the middle of the 17th
century, Spanish accounts, the only historical sources
available from that time, began to cast doubt on the
idea that the khipus had ever been "read" like texts.
Instead, the knots on khipus came to be viewed as
mnemonic prompts analogous to the beads on Catholic
rosaries, cues that supposedly had helped the
khipucamayocs recall information that they had already
memorized. Some scholars argued that a khipu could have
only been understood by the same khipucamayoc who'd made
it. Andean cultures secretly continued to use knotted
cords to record information well into the 20th century,
but the links between modern cords and Inca khipus
aren't clear. What's certain is that no one in recent
history has been able to fully interpret an Inca khipu.

The conquerors' mnemonic theory held sway for three
centuries, and was buttressed in 1923, when the
anthropologist L. Leland Locke analyzed 42 khipus at the
American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Locke demonstrated how the knots represented the results
of tabulations. These figures were grounded in the
base-10 decimal system (tens, hundreds, thousands), and
so were analogous to the beads on an abacus. Despite the
evidence from 16th-century eyewitness accounts, the
academic community accepted the hypothesis that the
Inca, who had built the world's largest highway system
and eradicated hunger in an empire of more than 10
million people, never managed to express their thoughts
in written form.

In 1981, however, the husband-and-wife, archeologist-
and-mathematician team of Robert and Marcia Ascher put
the Inca Paradox into doubt. By closely analyzing the
position, size, and color of the knots in 200 khipus,
they demonstrated that about 20 percent of them showed
"non-arithmetical" properties. These cords, the Aschers
argued, seemed to have been encoded with numbers that
might also represent other information-possibly some
form of narrative.

A khipu maker's work box, Inca eraThe question that Inca
scholars have grappled with since is whether or not the
khipus constitute what linguists call a glottographic or
"true writing" system. In true writing, a set of signs
(for example, the letters C-A-T) matches the sound of
speech (the spoken word "cat.") These signs must be
easily decoded not just by the person who writes them,
but by anyone who possesses the ability to read in that
language. No such link has yet been found between a
khipu and a single syllable of Quechua, the native
language of the Peruvian Andes.

But what if the khipus don't fit neatly into the precise
criteria established for true writing? It's possible,
says Wisconsin's Salomon, that khipus were actually
examples of semasiography, a system of representative
symbols-such as numerals or musical notation-that
conveys information but isn't tied to the speech sounds
of a single language, in this instance Quechua. (By
contrast, logographic languages such as Chinese and
Japanese are phonetic as well as character-based.) The
Incas conquered a huge number of neighboring peoples in
a short time span, between 1438 and 1532; each of these
groups had its own language or dialect, and the Incas
wanted to integrate those new territories into their
hyperefficient organizational network quickly. "It makes
sense that they'd use a system that could transcend
languages," Salomon says.

If khipus are examples of semasiography, the obvious
next step is to break their code. Nearly a decade ago,
Gary Urton, a professor of pre-Columbian studies at
Harvard, began the Khipu Database project (KDB), a
digitized repository of 520 khipus. (831 khipus are
known to exist worldwide.) Urton has argued that khipus
contain vastly more information than once believed-a
rich trove of data encoded in each cord's colors,
materials, and type of knot. The KDB may have already
decoded the first word from a khipu-the name of a
village, Puruchuco, which Urton believes was represented
by a three-number sequence much like an Inca ZIP code.
If he's correct, the system employed to encode
information in the khipus is the only known example of a
complex language recorded in a 3-D system. Khipus may
turn out to be something like bar codes that could be
"scanned" by anyone with the proper training.

The easiest way to know for certain if the khipus were a
form of writing would be to find the Inca equivalent of
the Rosetta Stone: a khipu paired with its written
Spanish translation. Because of the limited number of
khipus-only a fraction of the amount of material
available to the researchers who decoded the Egyptian
and Maya hieroglyphs-this has long been thought
improbable. It's not impossible, though. A couple of
decades ago, a 1568 real-estate document turned up in a
Cusco archive that showed that Machu Picchu had once
been a royal estate belonging to Pachacutec, the
greatest Inca emperor. In the 1990s an Italian
noblewoman claimed to have discovered a khipu with its
translation among her family papers in Naples. Thus far,
these controversial "Naples documents," initially a hot
topic of speculation among historians, have turned out
to be a dead end.

Then just last year, what may prove to be the most
important evidence yet turned up in a tiny mountain
village in Peru. Sabine Hyland, a professor of
anthropology at St. Norbert College, found a "khipu
board," a device Mercederian missionaries used to keep
track of information such as attendance of natives at
mass. The board, which dates from the 19th century,
lists 282 names. Next to 177 of them is a hole with a
corresponding khipu cord. While the board was created
centuries after the Spanish conquest, its cords' various
color patterns are similar to those found in khipus from
the Inca period. Hyland has since located a second khipu
board and plans to study both in depth later this year.

This is probably not an Inca Rosetta Stone. Hyland's
early guess is that the strings don't represent the
names exactly, but instead record mundane details like
which residents of the village played a role in a
holiday pageant or donated a sheep to the local fiesta.
But if they do resemble 16th-century khipus as closely
as she thinks they might, their decoding could at the
very least be proof that the Incas used a semasiographic
system. Such a breakthrough could begin to rewrite the
narrative of a civilization whose history has been told
almost entirely by the very conquerors who set out to
erase it. It would also serve as a reminder to future
researchers: Don't mistake your own lack of imagination
for deficiencies in the cultures you study.


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