After a hundred years of trying to unravel the mysteries of the khipus, scientists are still scratching their heads on how to decipher the complex Incan code.
It is unfortunate that the Incan Empire, believed to be the largest empire in the world in the 16th century, is most remembered for what it did not have. The Incas are the only complex civilization in the world that did not develop a graphical writing system.
In its place, however, is a means of communication far more complex and creative than today's scientists face a huge challenge in trying to decipher it. The problem is not that there is a lack of samples to study. It is in the fact that the khipus are so complicated in their multi-dimensionality that researchers so used to a one-dimensional writing system face an intricate historical puzzle involving numbers and words in the khipus.
What Are Khipus?
Khipus are communication devices made from knotted strings. By taking advantage of materials available to them, such as camelid fleece and cotton, the khipukamayuqs, or knot-makers, created the khipus as a record-keeping system for administrative tasks, such as tax collecting and census taking. Khipus found to have 10 knots, for instance, are now known to have been used for balancing the Incan books.
This, however, accounts for only two-thirds of all samples recovered. The remaining khipus are believed to harbor messages of old that are far more interesting than tax or census records. Researchers think the undeciphered khipus contain mystery names, stories, and philosophies that could reveal new facets of the Incan culture.
Some of them believe that the number of knots in a string could be a code that serves as a qualitative identifier for names of people or ideas. The mystery lies, however, in knowing what type of code is present. For instance, if a khipu has three knots, is it an identifier for three pesos, a local village, or a tax record? Other researchers believe the knots could represent the number of syllables in a certain word.
Remnants Of An Advanced Civilization
The khipus are one of the most baffling relics of the Incan civilization, giving researchers a glimpse into just how cutting-edge the Incans were. The use of knotted strings to communicate grew as a natural response to the harsh Peruvian environment, where chaskis or messengers, bore messages in the form of strings strewn over their shoulders.
In January 2018, anthropologists from Harvard University Gary Urton and Manuel Medrano rediscovered a pair of "documents" found in San Pedro de Corongo in the lower Santa Valley, shedding light on how the Spanish conquistadors forced the khipukamayuqs to narrate their khipus while a scribe noted them down on paper.
The first is a Spanish record describing a census listing 132 taxpayers, all of whom were identified by name. Urton and Medrano compared this with six khipus recovered from a burial site in the same area and found that the knots in the khipus correspond to the figures listed in the Spanish document.
Why Are Khipus So Hard To Crack?
Modern-day learners become familiar with math first by counting with blocks or their fingers. As students advance to higher grades, the blocks or fingers become abstract formulas written on paper.
By the time they graduate from high school, they have lost the ability to see numbers represented in multiple dimensions. Moreover, most people are taught at an early age that math and language are separate.
The Incas, on the other hand, were able to see numbers in a space outside of themselves. They were also able to put math, language, accounting, and history into one communication system that continues to baffles scientists to this day.
"Modern-day customs are the lens through which we view the past, defining success - our own condition - with a 'despite' clause for others who don't follow our own path," write Urton and Medrano. "In reality, the Incas' 3D records are intimidating because they are so radically outside the comfort zone of modern society and communication technologies."