I found an interesting article about the ongoing attempts to unravel the mysteries of the Inca Khipu on Wired News yesterday, thanks to Luigi of the Silverhorde. The Inca are thought to have used bundles of knotted strings known as Khipu or quipu for record keeping, though nobody knows for sure how to ‘read’ them.
In 1923, an anthropologist called Leland Locke realised that some of the khipu were like files – each knot represented a different number, arranged in a decimal system, and each bundle probably held census data or listed the contents of storehouses. However, some of the khipu followed different patterns and Locke thought these might have a ceremonial or other function.
In 1990, Gary Urton, an anthropologist at Harvard and one of the world’s leading Inca scholars, spotted several details that convinced him the khipu contained much more than tallies of llama sales. He set up a database of khipu and assembled a team of anthropologists, mathematicians and cryptographers to work on deciphering the knots. They have already spotted quite a few repeated patterns and hope to have some results from their efforts later this year.
If the Khipu turn out to be a method of recording language, which seems quite possible, what will it be called? It isn’t really writing as such. Any suggestions?