Incan Khipus Newly Understood
December 17, 2017 8:14 PM   Subscribe

In 2016 an undergraduate student of Prof. Urton, the expert on khipus, offered to help analyize a set. And the results have been termed "thrilling." Manny Medrano wasn't an archeology student but he was interested in it. He studied economics, which helped him in his data analysis (Excel spreadsheets). He spent spring break looking at a particular set of khipus and came back with some ideas. Urton was impressed enough that they began working on it together and Urton thinks they've made a breakthrough. I know the khipus were posted about back in 2003 but this is new info, to be published in early 2018
posted by MovableBookLady (24 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
So cool!
posted by escape from the potato planet at 8:28 PM on December 17, 2017


And Manny is lead author on the paper! Unheard of for an undergraduate, and one who's not even in the field.
posted by MovableBookLady at 8:47 PM on December 17, 2017 [8 favorites]


Exciting indeed! I hope that the relationships between the six khipus they were studying and the corresponding Spanish census document bear out as a standard convention in the rest of the khipu corpus.

Back in high school, learning about the Incas, it seemed like such a frustrating obstacle to further insight that we had so many khipus but they weren't understood.
posted by XMLicious at 9:32 PM on December 17, 2017


I've never even heard of civilizations that record information in ways other than writing, which sounds absurd now that I think about it but must have existed.
posted by bleep at 11:11 PM on December 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


*absurd to think that I've never even thought about the possibility before. Not absurd to think that they must have existed. Darn ambiguous sentence structure.
posted by bleep at 11:12 PM on December 17, 2017


Khipus previously. I think a fourteen year gap in a topic is sufficient to not have to apologize for making a new post about it :)
posted by ardgedee at 2:25 AM on December 18, 2017 [3 favorites]


This is beyond cool!!
posted by sockermom at 5:00 AM on December 18, 2017


This is good in so many ways. What a great thing to wake up to
posted by JoeXIII007 at 5:12 AM on December 18, 2017


I hope that the relationships between the six khipus they were studying and the corresponding Spanish census document bear out as a standard convention in the rest of the khipu corpus.

It would be a bummer if, after this effort, it turned out that there was a lot of regional variation in khipu semantics. But, even then, simply having a plausible translation for khipus for this one locality would be pretty amazing.
posted by tobascodagama at 5:27 AM on December 18, 2017 [3 favorites]


Very very cool. I am a total Khipu fetishist. Glad there's progress.
posted by Capybara at 6:00 AM on December 18, 2017


It would be a bummer if, after this effort, it turned out that there was a lot of regional variation in khipu semantics

Not a bummer at all, as far as I’m concerned! That would be an amazing find in its own right, and would only build on how amazing this is. Imagine how much that could begin to tell us about distance and diversity among the Inka. A unified system between provinces would be amazing, and a bunch of regional variations would be amazing too.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:01 AM on December 18, 2017 [3 favorites]


Say it’s knot so!
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:26 AM on December 18, 2017


This is inspiring. I wish I was that useful to the world as an undergrad.

Capybara, do you mean that literally, or as a topic of interest?
posted by umbú at 6:27 AM on December 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


A huge deal for an undergrad... Deciphering unknown writing systems is a top prize sought after by a lot of skilled minds, and quipu (kiphu?) is way high on the list of those prizes, being so unique and essential to discovering Incan history. Awesome news.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:28 AM on December 18, 2017


Metafilter: total khipu fetishists
posted by Quindar Beep at 8:08 AM on December 18, 2017 [3 favorites]


I've never even heard of civilizations that record information in ways other than writing, which sounds absurd now that I think about it but must have existed.

This is how a lot of writing evolved. You begin by jotting down symbols for simple concepts you want to remember, but as the things you want to record get more complicated, your symbols evolve to be able to represent language itself. One of my favorite examples is the Kish tablet from Sumer.

I wonder what would have happened with the qhipu. They're really unusual.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:35 AM on December 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


No written language, no beasts of burden beyond llamas, no frigging WHEELS. It's mind-blowing how much the Inca accomplished given those limitations. And then a few hundred Spanish on horseback took it all down.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:08 AM on December 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


I've never even heard of civilizations that record information in ways other than writing

The split tally stick is described as useful to illiterate traders, so perhaps it doesn't count as writing. The inherent validation/verification is pretty neat.
posted by clew at 2:52 PM on December 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


Here's my totally non-expert, non-indigenous-person speculation about how the use of khipus for recording information more complex than numbers may have developed: they started off as something like prayer beads, initially for repetitive prayers, but then for sub-sections of a standardized prayer. Some kind of variation in the knotting was introduced to indicate which sub-section corresponded to which knot, and from there someone made the leap that they might be used for a more generalized purpose of recording information.
posted by XMLicious at 5:46 PM on December 18, 2017


There's a little more info in the Harvard profile about this. I wish the article laid out a little more about the actual nuts and bolts - hopefully when the actual paper comes out they'll have diagrams etc. But very cool!
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:16 PM on December 18, 2017


Oo, and there's a bit about another researcher working on a different set of khipus, used for recording narratives rather than census data: National Geographic article from earlier this year. Both this one and the census one talk about cord color and the direction of the ply being used to record information; the census one mentions the orientation of the knots that attach the cords to the spine.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:43 PM on December 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


No written language, no beasts of burden beyond llamas, no frigging WHEELS. It's mind-blowing how much the Inca accomplished given those limitations. And then a few hundred Spanish on horseback took it all down.

It doesn't work too well to think in terms of technology as a linear progression like that. None of these things was really a limitation for them, because none of them was really needed.

There was no written language that we know of, but there were khipus for recording information, and there was an extensive and fast relay system for communicating messages across long distances.

No beasts of burden beyond llamas were necessary or even possible; llamas can handle the mountainous terrain nimbly, but larger animals struggle. Horses break their ankles on the steep inclines and narrow roads. And this is why wheels weren't needed: it makes much more sense to have a pack team of llamas than to pull something up and down steep terrain. In fact, they had wheels; there are Inca toys with wheels in them. It simply didn't make sense to use a wheeled vehicle in place of llamas.

And most importantly, it was not simply a few hundred Spanish on horseback and guns who changed things (because again, their horses' ankles kept breaking). Their arrival coincided with the start of a major civil war that divided the Incas, accelerated at least in part because of the smallpox that they brought with them. In the end, it was less than two hundred Spanish who leveraged local political fractures to change things along existing fault lines in the wake of a major epidemic. The vast majority of the actual fighting was between indigenous people.

This isn't to say the Spanish were ineffective, but it wasn't technology that made the difference there.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 4:46 AM on December 19, 2017 [6 favorites]


And of course, there were unique things that they did have: they had insanely precise stone masonry that fit together perfectly and required no mortar (it's amazing to think about how long these ruins have lasted in areas with frequent earthquakes, held together entirely by gravity; and it's frankly astounding that they were able to haul huge amounts of stone across mountains in order to build at thousands of feet of elevation). Andean agriculture is extremely adaptable, with varieties of crops suited to subtle differences in growing conditions in order to maximize yield in difficult terrain. They, or their ancestors, invented one of the world's major food crops (the many, many varieties of Andean potatoes are also generally much more highly nutritious than outside the region). I mentioned the relay system, but it was pretty impressive, utilizing relay runners who could send a message hundreds of miles without needing rest (because each individual runner only had to travel a relatively short distance). They made it possible to send messages much faster than if a single person were to travel that distance.

I'm sure there's much more, too. I hope I don't sound too much like I'm lecturing, but I always want to undermine the conventional narrative that the Inca were somehow limited by their technology, because it doesn't reflect the actual history there.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 5:02 AM on December 19, 2017 [8 favorites]


Point taken, “limitations” is probably the wrong word. Amazing how much they accomplished, and didn’t need these things we consider culturally crucial to do it.

I’m still amazed st the accounts of handfuls of mounted, armored conquistadores taking on - and beating - hundreds of Inca warriors, repeatedly. With help, of course, but still.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:20 AM on December 23, 2017


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