Thursday, September 07, 2006

Welcome to the Popular Khipu Decipherment Project

The Inca Civilization has long been noted as being a "civilization without writing." However, from the very beginning of European contact with the Incas, chroniclers both Spanish and Native, have noted that the Incas had long kept records by means of knots stored on chains of multi-colored chords.

There has never been doubt that these records kept accounting (tribute) information and there are even court cases in the early colonial period in Peru where the Spaniards accepted the testimonies of chord readers or (quipucamayos) who were called in to settle tribute disputes.

However, the early chroniclers also made numerous suggestions that khipus had been used in the pre-Columbian period for more than just accounting, but rather that khipus were used to communicate orders, to record histories in some way, and ritual practices.

How khipus were used to communicate more just numbers remains an unsolved question today, though there are researchers on at least three different continents, South America, North America and Europe actively seeking to "break the Khipu Code."

While obviously these researchers know what they are doing, and will do their work far more professionally than any web-based popular effort such as this.

However, there are numerous aspects to the Khipu question that make it an attractive candidate for a popular web-based effort:

(1) Quechua, the native language of the Incas is a language of relatively few words, that various authorities, both from the early Colonial period and from more recent times, have noted can be broken up into a relatively small number of syllables (about 40) and an even smaller number of consonants (about 10). Quechua has a very simple and yet very precise grammar based on suffixes that is again, conceptually fairly accessible.

(2) The Khipu question unites mathematics (binary, base 10 and even possibly base 40), as well as language, history, religion, iconography, and even textile crafts. It's the "History Channel" buff's dream!

So what I'm hoping to do here is offer folks the possibility to exchange ideas / strategies for breaking the khipu codes.

As I personally read the literature about the subject, I will post summaries of various insights regarding the khipu question that I come across. I would encourage others to do the same.

Fundamentally, I am fascinated by what we, as humanity, will find when we finally succeed in breaking this means of "chord writing."

Charles Mann, who recently authored the book entitled 1491, pondered this question asking an anthropologist friend of his:

"What might the voice [of the pre-Columbian peoples of the Andes] sound like: people attuned to tension and cloth, people who saw the stones of the world charged with spirit, people who had never seen animals larger than a llama, people who broke the world into complementary halves and thought more in terms of up and down than north and south, people who took in information about the world through their fingers."

Her answer: "Foreign."

Would it not be fascinating to discover that voice?

Fr. Dennis Kriz, OSM
PhD Chem Eng - University of Southern California 1992
currently parish priest at Annunciata Parish in Chicago


Anonymous Anonymous said...

most information with least effort (mathematically) textile pattern as graph of symbols with knots meaning which graph, first symbol, pointers to successive symbols in msg. . . this solves several problems--messenger errors become traceable by following with duplicates, if knowledge was secret, Pizarro's men could have destroyed it all easily, etc.--j5i3

May 19, 2009, 1:23:00 PM  

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