Decoding the historic Inca Knots

A khipu, or knot-record, was a method used by the Incas and other ancient Andean cultures to keep records and communicate information. In the absence of an alphabetic writing system, this highly portable device achieved a surprising degree of precision and flexibility in keeping a record aide memoire to recount stories, myths and poems from the Inca tradition. Khipu were also used to record imperial conquests and royal blood-lines.

While incorporating a wide variety of colours, types of string, and sometimes several hundred knots all tied in various ways at various heights, Khipu could also record dates, statistics, accounts, and even represent key episodes from traditional folk stories and poetry.

In recent years scholars have also challenged the traditional view that khipu were merely a memory aid device and go so far as to suggest that khipu may have been progressing towards narrative records to aid in oral accounts and became a viable alternative to written language.

Knot usage is believed to have piqued just when the Inca Empire collapsed.

As one of the world’s oldest civilizations, the Inca Empire was pre-Columbian and located in the western part of South America. By 1527, the Inca Empire spanned an area of about 770,000 square miles, making it one of the largest empires in the world during its prime.

The growth of the Inca Empire continued until the 16th century with the coming of the Spanish. With his team of conquistadors, Francisco Pizzaro received the royal approval from the Spanish queen to conquer the Inca Empire. The coming of the Spanish into Inca led the spread of diseases, particularly influenza and chickenpox, which decreased the output of the working class as well as the nobility.

The worst effect was the death of the Incan emperor which left his sons contesting for the throne. Succession disputes between the ruling family, unrests in the newly conquered territories, and the spread of chickenpox further weakened the Inca Empire against external attacks.

This made the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire last for 40 years beginning in 1532. Several battles were fought between the Incas and the Spanish who worked together with native allies.

The Spanish empire had superiority over the Incas regarding their military knowledge and tactics as well as support from native tribes who sought to end the rule of the Inca dynasty.

Later, the struggle between the Spanish and the Incas involved a shift in allegiance with parties avenging the deaths of their leaders or rising in rebellion against Spanish rule. The fall of the Inca Empire ended with the execution of all the Incan rulers and their families in 1572.

After the Spanish conquest, many of the knots were purposely destroyed. Thus destroying the certain ability to understand their meanings.

What is still known is that a typical Khipu consists of a horizontal string or even a wooden bar, from which hang numerous knotted and coloured strings made from either cotton or wool. Some of the larger quipu have as many as 1500 strings, and these could also be woven in different ways suggesting that they way they are woven had a meaning as well.

The various colour shades used could also carry a specific meaning. The type of knot, the position of it on the string, the total number of knots and the sequence of the knots could all combine to create a potentially huge number of meanings. The whole method was based on a decimal positional system, with the largest decimal used being 10,000.

The Inca mathematical system was almost exactly the same as the math system in use today. The numbers or units in the system on a particular khipu are indicated by the strings furthest from the primary string, acting as a sort of key.

Different types of knots had different meanings. For example, a knot could indicate a number from one to nine by the turns of string within the knot, a figure-of-eight knot could indicate a fixed value, a ‘granny’ knot equalled ten, and a string missing a knot signified zero. Secondary strings could also hang from any single string and these could indicate that this string was an exception or of secondary importance to the other strings. Finally, individual khipu could join with others in a specific and meaningful sequence.

Naturally, to maximize the khipu’s potential for information storage, it was better to have an accompanying oral record and so there grew a body of experts or masters, the khipu kamayuq.

These individuals are believed to have memorized the oral account which fully explained a particular khipu and as the job was hereditary, the oral part was passed from generation to generation. The same as most indigenous oral history.

There was a certain pressure attached to the job, however, as lapses in memory could be severely punished.

With the help of his professor, a scholar of Pre-Columbian studies interpreted a set of six khipus by matching the khipus to a colonial-era Spanish census document.

The scholar uncovered the meaning of the cords in greater detail than ever before and their findings could contribute to a better understanding of daily life in the Andean civilization.

A turning point came when Urton began looking into a set of six khipus from the 17th-century Santa River Valley region of Northwest Peru. One day, Urton picked up a book and happened to spot a Spanish census document from the same region and time period.

Medrano noticed that the way each cord was tied onto the khipu seemed to correspond to the social status of the 132 people recorded in the census document. The colors of the strings also appeared to be related to the people’s first names. The correlations seemed too strong to be a coincidence. After spring break, Medrano told his professor about his theories.

The professor, based out of Harvard College, is now optimistic that the six khipus examined in the research could serve as a key to decode the hundreds of others he has in his database. The colours of the cords as they relate to first names was the first hint that hat scholar have believed to be correlations are the start.

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