Food & Culture

These Knotted Cords Are The Written Language Of The Inca

The Inca empire was the great power of the pre-Columbian Andes. From their terrace farms carved into the mountains to their dizzyingly high suspension bridge roadways, it's clear that the Incas were masterful engineers—but for centuries, Western scholars have struggled to find any indication that they had a written language. Now, a new discovery suggests that their writing might have been right in front of us this whole time.

An example of a quipu from the Inca Empire, currently in the Larco Museum Collection.

Unraveling An Ancient Mystery

They called it the "Inca paradox": how could it be that such accomplished builders could make their grand, continent-spanning schemes without the benefit of the written word? Remember, this wasn't just a village here and there. The Inca were the largest civilization in pre-Columbian America, and by the 16th century, they were quite possibly the largest in the world. What's more, the empire had a robust communication network, and managed to stay unified despite sprawling over a 3,000-mile stretch of rugged mountains. It boggles the mind that such an accomplished and well-established society would not have developed some form of writing, but the only evidence that had been unearthed from the Andes were knotted strings called khipu. They seemed to only convey numerical values, and were believed to have been used mainly for trade transactions. But there was one problem: ancient oral traditions, backed up by colonial Spanish documents, claimed those very knotted cords were in fact a way to convey actual messages—not just the price of a llama. Modern archaeologists have finally been able to wrap their heads around how the system could have worked.

The clue that brought this puzzle into focus actually comes from long after the fall of the Inca empire. In the 18th century, what remained of the Inca were fighting against Spanish rule, sometimes rising up in open rebellion. According to the villagers of San Juan de Collata, plans for one such rebellion were written in khipu and kept safe for the past three centuries. Anthropologist Sabine Hyland took those claims seriously, and after a decade of studying the well-documented numerical khipu, she's confident that the knotted cords from Collata do indeed represent phonetic sounds. What's more, she makes a convincing case that those messages were passed between two influential families from that time—the kind of people who might be interested in leading a rebellion against their oppressors. Further translation of the cords has been slow going, but this is an important first step towards understanding one of the most influential civilizations in world history.

Cracking The Code

What sets the two Collata khipu apart from all others discovered so far? Quite a lot, actually. The best documented khipu are generally made of cotton, and each strand on the cord features small knots at regular intervals. By contrast, the Collata khipu are made from many materials, including animal hair and metallic fibers, and are only knotted at the bottom to keep from unravelling. By gathering information from local residents, and interviewing the descendents of the people supposed to have sent these messages, Hyland was eventually able to translate the final three cords of one of the khipu as syllables spelling —wait for it—the sender's family name. This opened the door to identifying the other khipu's "return address," the name of a similarly powerful family from a nearby village. It's a long way from actually translating the messages, but it has huge ramifications for future attempts at understanding. For one thing, it means that the colors of the numerical khipu might not have been arbitrary, as has long been assumed. It's almost enough to make you wonder how much anthropologists would know if they would just listen to the people they're studying once in awhile.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas June 5, 2017

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