20 maio 2017

Speaking Threads: New Evidence about the Mysterious Incan Quipus

Quipus were tied strings used widely in the Incan Empire. We know they were used for record keeping – counting people and livestock and potatoes – but it has long been speculated that the quipus might have been used for storing more complicated information. Could knotted strings have been their writing system? New evidence suggests it was, at minimum, possible. Two quipus have been protected by one remote Andean village since around the time of the Spanish conquest. San Juan de Collata’s village elders recently invited a researcher to study the two quipus the community had carefully preserved for generations.

Village leaders said the quipus were “narrative epistles about warfare created by local chiefs.” That’s much more complex than counting goods for taxes. It was the first hint that these quipu might be different than the ones studied before. The Collata quipus are the first quipus ever reliably identified as narrative epistles by the descendants of their creators

The quipus were stored in a wooden box that until recently was kept secret from outsiders. The quipus it held are larger and more complex than typical accounting versions, and unlike most quipus, which were made of cotton, the Collata quipus were made from the hair and fibers of Andean animals, including vicuna, alpaca, guanaco, llama, deer, and the rodent vizcacha. Animal fibers accept and retain dyes better than cotton. Thanks to their dark storage, and the materials they were made out of, the two quipu still showed 14 different colors! In fact several variables — including color, fiber type, even the direction of the cords’ weave or ply—encode information, villagers explained, so that reading the quipus requires touch as well as sight. The more variables are included the more complex the information it can contain.

For now, we cannot “read” the quipus. But this new information is extremely valuable for furthering our understanding. Who knows, in fifty years, the San Juan de Collata quipus may be known as the Rosetta Stone of the Incas!

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