Inca writing?

Photo of khipu

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?

This entry was posted in Language, Writing.

13 Responses to Inca writing?

  1. Alain Vaillancourt says:

    If it turns out that the colors give redundant coding then it might be an Haptographic neography.

  2. Joe DeRose says:

    I have no problem thinking of it as writing. Indeed, tying knots it doesn’t seem far removed from carving notches on stones, and Ogham is considered a writing system. But there’s all sorts of vaguery if we look around: Are the little magnetic ticks on a hard drive a system of writing? We don’t think so because they have a one-to-one correlation with a more approachable system of writing, and so we think of them merely as a storage mechanism. But (to use the quintessential example) aliens investingating our culture might think of it as a form of writing.

  3. Nikki says:

    I wouldn’t really think of it as writing (since to me, writing involves the use of a tool, e.g. brush, knife, finger, to create marks on something, e.g. paper, wood, sand) but instead I would probably think of khipu being to writing what sign languages are to spoken languages and say something like ‘to knot’ as the equivalent of ‘to write’, like ‘to sign’ as the equivalent of ‘to say’.

  4. gee says:

    @Nikki: Well you are using tools (your fingers) to create marks (the knots) on some kind of material (the strings) 😉 .

    Personally I see this as a kind of “writing” albeit a rather special one. I’d rather say that knots are to “ordinary” writing as whistled languages are to spoken ones (using more or less the same tools archiving different results).

  5. Ben L. says:

    In the broadest sense, writing is the recording of language. What makes writing the key technological innovation that it is is the ability to reproduce language in spite of separation in time or space. The recording in question may be more or less discernable with the naked eye, e.g. books vs. audio cassettes. Of course, cassettes require a special device to access the recording, but then so does microfiche.

    Concerning the quipu, if they reproduce language, then they are indeed writing. I find it quite likely that if they had been allowed to continue in use, they would eventually have changed their form, perhaps into something more akin to other writing systems.

    As for what Simon might do with them, I have a feeling he may have a new candidate for undeciphered writing systems…

  6. Travis says:

    Well put Ben. Your observations are interesting to read. And it is to be seen what Simon does with it. For myself, I found his posted article fascinating. With all the small twists and turns and colors involved, it would have been interesting to see how the reader of the string language would approach such an unravelled tassel. Would one string at a time be held between the fingers and turned on all sides, or would the reader be more like a musician who is capable of taking in complex layers of stacked notes on a page of music without losing a beat. I suppose if these were exclusively ledger sheets, the pace would be rather slow and careful. Tying the knots at the correct intervals must have been a skill in itself.

  7. Zachary R. says:

    I kind of agree with Nikki, that I wouldn’t refer to it as writing, but more as knotting (or some ~graphy word). Just as when I’m writing on the computer, I call it typing (typography). Yet, the two are still used since you can still decrypt/read what it says without the use of any extra(vagant) tools.

  8. Ben L. says:

    Thanks, Travis. Zachary- I think you’re right… in the most common sense of “writing”. If we’re talking about the ability of civilizations to pass on their thoughts, though, then we are- in a very broad sense- talking about writing. Perhaps this is for lack of a better term for the general concept of recording speech. I admit I haven’t before heard writing refered to in this broad a sense (to include any syntactic recording from carved stone to computer code), but I do believe that this expanded concept is the logical modern manifestation of writing in the sense of an innovation of civilization.

    So what word best describes the broad range of recording tools available?

  9. Travis says:

    I agree with Ben about writing and its place in our modes of communication. We’re used to the concept of writing as letters drawn in inks and graphite on the paper. With ceramic tablets, it would have taken much more time, effort and skill to etch shapes into the clay without creating ragged edges from the stylus. If you’ve tried to write in clay this way, you’ll know how easy it is to create distracting troughs and crumbs. Instead, the ancients ‘stamped’ the clay with an arrowhead shaped tool that left quick, clean and easily legible marks. No flakes. If we consider our blog to be conveyed in writing, even though our hands never touch the texts on the screen, does this still constitute writing any more than the hands that record information thru knots? If writing need be classified by its ink, then cuneiform would be in another category as well. The cultures between the Tigris and the Euphrates used punches for their clay tablets, the Egyptians used paint pigments, we use Bic pens, the Incas used threads. Whichever method you choose, the hand is involved, and it twists and turns as it manipulates its message, progressing along the length of its material, be it paper, clay, metal, or fabric. Writing conforms to the materials. Each will require an adaptation of the hand. Perhaps we can classify our computer communications as writing only because it looks like the real thing. But in reality, it is as vaporous as an audio recording. It’s not really writing at all in the traditional definition, but a very effective illusionist. Likewise, a hardcopy printout is more akin to a photograph than a manuscript, even though the two share the exact same information. With that said, Zachary’s idea of another -graphy is intriguing. Knotography would be an interesting field.

  10. Geoff says:

    May I suggest spinning a yarn or weaving a tale? Unless it is a mathematical problem, which Lewis Carroll and contemporaries actually did refer to as knots. In a more serious vein, our experience of tapestries and cross-stitch samplers suggests that if you are offering images, they’re pictures, but if you’re recording language, it’s writing.

    A secondary question is whether the knots will turn out to record sound – like alphabets and syllabaries; ideas – ideographic; or a combination – as with hieroglyphics and Japanese. Given the problems in tying the knots, I would expect any system recording language to be rather abbreviated, in which case we might call it knot-shorthand.

    I would add that the first time I read of the qipu was in Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne, which may bias me on the question of Incan “writing”.

  11. May I invite you to messages recorded in Inca Knots – in many languages in Inca knots

  12. Heather says:

    I remember hearing something about this at one point, with the suggestion that it might represent the world’s only three-dimensional writing system… but I’ve never seen pictures of the knotted cords to be able to form my own guesses.


  13. jophn Woods W says:

    Ever since visiting Peru, I have been fascinated by the
    quipu. The Inca, who followed earlier similar societies, were a far to large (millions across 1000+ miles). sophisticated, and successful society to function without a both a written commercial and literary language. Even the Spanish priests who destroyed all the “devils strings” knew that they contained important information. Information is in type of knots, length of strings, intervals, color, and more as far as I know.
    I recently heard about a British mathmatician (Savant) who thinks in color, and intervals. Has anybody presented him with these strings”


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