Friday, September 08, 2006

Approaches for Discerning Narrative in Khipus - I - Envisioning Khipus as Databases

The question of how to discern or read narrative into the mostly numerical information present in khipus has been a central question in the study of khipus.

A very interesting approach has been that proposed by Marcia Ascher of Cornell University.

In M. Ascher's article Reading Khipu: Labels, Structure and Format in Narrative Threads she suggested that khipus need not contain any non-numerical data.

M. Ascher noted, for instance, that a basic narrative for our own lives could be constructed solely through numbers and numerical labels. Our identity is associated with a Social Security number. Our places of residence and of school and work are associated with Zip-codes. We have a date of birth that could be described solely by numbers and, indeed, any time or date can be precisely described by numbers as well. Finally, our financial transactions can be described through numbers (dates, accounts, sums of units transferred) too.

Thus, M. Ascher, suggests that khipu could be envisioned as databases of (to us) largely unintelligible formats but to the quipocamayos entrusted to read the khipus, who presumably were trained to know the various khipu formats, they could be quite readily understandable.

Indeed, often enough, the pendants on khipus appear to be organized in discernible pendant groups. (See the data tables) of the Harvard University Khipu Database.

Yet, while it is true that even the cuneiform records of ancient Mesopotamia most often contain records of various economic transactions, and much about daily life can be learned from them, one hopes that like in the case of ancient Mesopotamia, it will be found that at least some khipus contain more than just a list of economic transactions.

Still, M. Ascher's insight suggests that while a khipu of well formatted pendant groups could be a poem of some sort, it is probably a record of economic or census / population data.

Dennis (moderator)


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