Untying the knots of Incan codes

Quipus are the mysterious bundles of colored and knotted threads that served as the Inca empire’s means of recording information. The code of the quipus has long since been forgotten, and the only major advance in understanding them was the insight, made in 1923, that the knots were used to represent numbers.

The quantity and positioning of the knots, at least in certain quipus, is agreed to represent a decimal system.
 
A new and possibly significant advance in deciphering the quipu system may now have been gained by two Harvard researchers, Gary Urton and Carrie Brezine. They believe they may have decoded the first word – a place name – to be found in a quipu, and identified what some of the many numbers in the quipu records may be referring to.
 
Though a single word would be just the first step in a very long road, it would open the possibility of discovering a whole new level of meaning in the quipus. It could also resolve a longstanding controversy by establishing that quipus included a writing system and were not just personal mnemonic devices understood only by the person who made them, as some scholars have maintained.
 
That in turn would help explain the "Inca paradox," that among states of large size and administrative complexity the Inca empire stands out as the only one that apparently did not invent writing. The paradox would be resolved if indeed the quipu encode a writing system as well as numbers.
 
The Harvard researchers also have ideas about the nature of the item being so carefully tallied in the quipus under study – units of labor, like an ancient time log. The Inca empire, which lasted from about 1450 to 1532, depended on tribute levied in the form of a labor tax. Because of the importance of the tax for building the imperial roads and other public works, both the requisition and delivery of the labor days owed in tax were likely to have been carefully recorded by the Inca bureaucrats.
 
Quipus were used both by high officials to issue instructions and by lower officials to report what they had done. It is easy to imagine a diligent accountant wanting to compare the outgoing quipu, or a copy of it, with the incoming response quipu.
 
It is this kind of a reporting system that the Harvard researchers believe is reflected in a set of quipus recovered from the archaeological site of Puruchuco, near Lima. Among a cache of 21 quipus recovered from a house, probably that of the chief quipu keeper, seven are clearly related in a three-tier accounting hierarchy.
 
The quipus at the lowest level record groups of numbers. The middle-tier quipus summarize the figures from these and other, missing, quipus, in a double entry system, in that the same summaries from the lower level appear on two midlevel quipus. Information from the midtier quipus is also summarized in a pair of top quipus.
 
"We know a great deal of the bureaucracy was occupied in overseeing tribute labor for the state, so I suspect a large percentage of the quipu had to do with labor," Urton said.
 
If the Puruchuco quipus are indeed records of the labor tax, then one unit at the lowest level would represent one laborer day of work for the state. The quipu could, of course, be recording other things, like sacrifices or heads of llama, Urton said, but units of labor seem to him the most likely.
 
Since the quipu could represent instructions sent to the ruler of Puruchuco from the provincial governor, or accounting records sent from Puruchuco to the governor, it would have been useful for the records to carry a tag identifying the place they referred to.
 
As it happens, all the quipus in the two top summarizing layers carry an initial set of knots designating three ones, as if 1-1-1 designated the place name for Puruchuco. The lowest level quipus do not carry this place code, perhaps because they never left Puruchuco and so didn’t need one.
 
If this interpretation is accepted by other scholars, it would be the first meaning, beyond the number system, to be identified in quipus, Urton said.
 
Galen Brokaw, a quipu expert at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said it was plausible to suggest the numbers being tallied in many quipu referred to the labor tax. Urton’s identification of 1-1-1 as a place name would, if confirmed, be "a substantive contribution to understanding how quipu worked," Brokaw said. The proposal is fascinating, he said, but hard to verify.
 
Only 700 or so quipus have been preserved, since the Spanish destroyed them as a matter of policy. About two-thirds are clearly numerical records, with knots placed in a series of levels, each corresponding to a power of 10. But scholars have been baffled by the nature of the remaining third, which embody some different meaning.
 
Those who believe the nonnumerical quipus were just personal mnemonic devices cite a 17th-century Jesuit chronicler who reported that each quipu maker could understand only his own quipu, not those of others. But the chronicler may have been misinformed, Urton wrote in his book "Signs of the Inka Khipu," because his report was made 70 years after the Spanish authorities in Lima had condemned quipu as idolatrous in a decree of 1583 and had ordered them burned.
 
Urton believes that the Puruchuco hierarchy of quipus would have been made by different people and hence show information passing between them via quipu. This would be a significant finding.
 
"The use of conventional signs is my definition of writing," Urton said. In the Puruchuco set, "information is being passed through three different levels in ways suggestive of a conventional system."
 
Urton has previously suggested that structural features of quipu, like the type of knot, the handedness of the thread and its color, could constitute a seven-place binary system for encoding information, an idea supported by contemporary accounts that the Incas read the quipu by passing their hands along the knots as well as looking at them. But his analysis of the Puruchuco quipu did not invoke this hypothesis.
 
 Quipus are the mysterious bundles of colored and knotted threads that served as the Inca empire’s means of recording information. The code of the quipus has long since been forgotten, and the only major advance in understanding them was the insight, made in 1923, that the knots were used to represent numbers.
 
The quantity and positioning of the knots, at least in certain quipus, is agreed to represent a decimal system.
 
A new and possibly significant advance in deciphering the quipu system may now have been gained by two Harvard researchers, Gary Urton and Carrie Brezine. They believe they may have decoded the first word – a place name – to be found in a quipu, and identified what some of the many numbers in the quipu records may be referring to.
 
Though a single word would be just the first step in a very long road, it would open the possibility of discovering a whole new level of meaning in the quipus. It could also resolve a longstanding controversy by establishing that quipus included a writing system and were not just personal mnemonic devices understood only by the person who made them, as some scholars have maintained.
 
That in turn would help explain the "Inca paradox," that among states of large size and administrative complexity the Inca empire stands out as the only one that apparently did not invent writing. The paradox would be resolved if indeed the quipu encode a writing system as well as numbers.
 
The Harvard researchers also have ideas about the nature of the item being so carefully tallied in the quipus under study – units of labor, like an ancient time log. The Inca empire, which lasted from about 1450 to 1532, depended on tribute levied in the form of a labor tax. Because of the importance of the tax for building the imperial roads and other public works, both the requisition and delivery of the labor days owed in tax were likely to have been carefully recorded by the Inca bureaucrats.
 
Quipus were used both by high officials to issue instructions and by lower officials to report what they had done. It is easy to imagine a diligent accountant wanting to compare the outgoing quipu, or a copy of it, with the incoming response quipu.
 
It is this kind of a reporting system that the Harvard researchers believe is reflected in a set of quipus recovered from the archaeological site of Puruchuco, near Lima. Among a cache of 21 quipus recovered from a house, probably that of the chief quipu keeper, seven are clearly related in a three-tier accounting hierarchy.
 
The quipus at the lowest level record groups of numbers. The middle-tier quipus summarize the figures from these and other, missing, quipus, in a double entry system, in that the same summaries from the lower level appear on two midlevel quipus. Information from the midtier quipus is also summarized in a pair of top quipus.
 
"We know a great deal of the bureaucracy was occupied in overseeing tribute labor for the state, so I suspect a large percentage of the quipu had to do with labor," Urton said.
 
If the Puruchuco quipus are indeed records of the labor tax, then one unit at the lowest level would represent one laborer day of work for the state. The quipu could, of course, be recording other things, like sacrifices or heads of llama, Urton said, but units of labor seem to him the most likely.
 
Since the quipu could represent instructions sent to the ruler of Puruchuco from the provincial governor, or accounting records sent from Puruchuco to the governor, it would have been useful for the records to carry a tag identifying the place they referred to.
 
As it happens, all the quipus in the two top summarizing layers carry an initial set of knots designating three ones, as if 1-1-1 designated the place name for Puruchuco. The lowest level quipus do not carry this place code, perhaps because they never left Puruchuco and so didn’t need one.
 
If this interpretation is accepted by other scholars, it would be the first meaning, beyond the number system, to be identified in quipus, Urton said.
 
Galen Brokaw, a quipu expert at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said it was plausible to suggest the numbers being tallied in many quipu referred to the labor tax. Urton’s identification of 1-1-1 as a place name would, if confirmed, be "a substantive contribution to understanding how quipu worked," Brokaw said. The proposal is fascinating, he said, but hard to verify.
 
Only 700 or so quipus have been preserved, since the Spanish destroyed them as a matter of policy. About two-thirds are clearly numerical records, with knots placed in a series of levels, each corresponding to a power of 10. But scholars have been baffled by the nature of the remaining third, which embody some different meaning.
 
Those who believe the nonnumerical quipus were just personal mnemonic devices cite a 17th-century Jesuit chronicler who reported that each quipu maker could understand only his own quipu, not those of others. But the chronicler may have been misinformed, Urton wrote in his book "Signs of the Inka Khipu," because his report was made 70 years after the Spanish authorities in Lima had condemned quipu as idolatrous in a decree of 1583 and had ordered them burned.
 
Urton believes that the Puruchuco hierarchy of quipus would have been made by different people and hence show information passing between them via quipu. This would be a significant finding.
 
"The use of conventional signs is my definition of writing," Urton said. In the Puruchuco set, "information is being passed through three different levels in ways suggestive of a conventional system."
 
Urton has previously suggested that structural features of quipu, like the type of knot, the handedness of the thread and its color, could constitute a seven-place binary system for encoding information, an idea supported by contemporary accounts that the Incas read the quipu by passing their hands along the knots as well as looking at them. But his analysis of the Puruchuco quipu did not invoke this hypothesis.
 
https://www.iht.com/articles/2005/08/18/features/INCA.php

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