Friday, September 08, 2006

Structure and Numerical Representation on Khipus

From the time of the earliest Colonial records on the Incas, coming from both Spanish and native-Mestizo such as Garcilaso do la Vega (El Inca), it had been asserted that the Inca empire kept records by means of khipus.

A Khipu is composed essentially a primary chord whose constituent threads may be of varied natural or dyed colors. To this primary chord are normally attached a series of pendant chords also of varying colors. These pendant chords also often contain knots of varied size/complexity spaced at discernible distances from each other and from the main chord. Sometimes further subsidiary chords again of varied colors and with varied knot characteristics are attached to the pendant chords as well. A good visual presentation of the basic structure of a khipu can be found at the University of Wisconsin link given below.

In his book, Commentarios Reales de los Incas, Garcilaso wrote that the Incas kept a decimal accounting system by means of knots representing 1s, 10s, 100s, and 1000s.

He also wrote that the colors of the chords often represented different classes of items (animals, types of textiles, warriors, gold, etc) that were being counted.

In the 1920s, an investigator, Locke, was able to make sense of the knots present on most khipus, noting presence three different kinds of knots:

Simple (S) knots, looped (L) knots which had between 2 and 9 loops, and figure-8 (E) knots. Again an excellent visual presentation of what these basic knot types look like is given at U. of Wisconsin link given below.

Assigning values of 1 to S and E knots and values of 2-9 to L knots, and noting that these knots were generally present at fairly specific incremental distances along the lengths of the pendant and subsidiary chords, Locke was able to successfully propose a decimal system of knots.

Locke also took at face value Garcilaso's assertion that the colors of the pendant strings corresponded to various classes of items being accounted for (animals, warriors, gold, etc) and proposed that the vast majority of known khipus were, in fact, accounting records of this type.

However, Garcilaso, as well as other early Colonial authorities, both Spanish and Native-Mestizo argued that more than just accounting information was recorded on khipus, but also histories, calendaric / ritual information and imperial communication.

On the surface, one the would think that Garcilaso, et al's assertions would make sense since imperial communication was relayed by runners in the Inca empire over the 1000s of miles of its length, and it would just make sense that these communications would be far more precise if they did not have to be memorized and then re-taught to each runner along the relay path.

Indeed, khipus are shown numerous times in the pictures of Peruvian life, given by the early Spanish Chronicler, Gauman p. D'Ayala, including in one picture in which a runner is portrayed holding a rolled-up khipu labeled "carta" (or "letter") in his hand.

How, the Incas (as well as their predecessor civilizations) used khipus for communication (besides simply tribute lists) remains an open question today.

Dennis (moderator)

Link: On the basic structure of khipus (U of Wisconsin)

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