On August 29th, 2017 we learned about

Twisted and knotted cords found to tell tales beyond basic numerical tallies

234 years ago, Felipe Tupa Inka Yupanki arrived in the small Peruvian town of Collata to organize an uprising of native Incans against Spanish colonizers. Yupanki issued decrees and tried organizing an army, although the planned revolt came to a halt once these plans were discovered, ending in the rebel’s execution. This story isn’t as well known as the larger Incan rebellions of the eighteenth century, partially because it’s largely documented in collections of yarn and string in a writing medium called a khipu.

Recording words in twisted cords

Khipus are an Incan form of logosyllabic writing built out of twisted fibers and cords made from cotton, cloth or animal fibers like alpaca and llama hair. Shorter cords of variable color, patterning and textures are individually tied to one larger cord that acts like a sort of spine for the whole message. Each khipu is capped by a cayte, which was generally a textile like a ribbon or bandanna tied to the pieces creator, asserting its authenticity like a signature. If laid out flat, the whole khipu might resemble a short, uneven fringe, but that variability is key to their utility as a communication medium.

Many of the khipus now in museums have been found to use knots to record numbers, and were simple, portable accounting tools used by herders into the twentieth century. Unlike the beads of an abacus, knots were not directly representational of quantities, instead relying on distances and size to record different numbers. By and large, these kinds of accounting khipus were made of cotton, requiring less sophistication in their craftsmanship. However, two khipus recently studied in Collata display a new degree of depth and sophistication, showing that these objects could encode entire stories, as long as you know what to look for.

Narratives beyond numbers

The two khipus from Collata are known to reference the Incan rebellions, but they’re not really being read word for word at this point. Village elders have been passing the khipus, along with other documents tied to the town’s history, down to each other for generations, telling the story of the khipus in the process. The khipus are thought to be based on Quechua, a language no longer spoken in Collata. Still, the various twists, colors, and choices in fiber support the notion that this cords represent words, with 95 individual symbols having been identified.

Since my two sentence summary of the rebellion used 51 unique words, it’s easy to see that the khipu isn’t offering any one-to-one transcription. The 95 symbols that have been identified aren’t phonetic words, instead functioning more like rebuses or pictograms. So rather than directly represent a word, symbols that can remind someone of a word thanks to their similar sounds might be combined to express an idea. This system wouldn’t have been as flexible as a fully phonetic alphabet, but the 95 symbols seen across 487 cords on the Collata khipus are enough to have hundreds of unique combinations.

At this point, researchers speculate that these khipus may be a taste of a significant and unexplored communication system. The success of the Incan empire is hard to imagine without robust means of communication, and if more examples of narrative writing can be found, it may help unlock a lot of recorded knowledge about how that society functioned.

Source: Writing with Twisted Cords: The Inscriptive Capacity of Andean Khipus by Sabine Hyland, Current Anthropology

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