Science & Technology

Mystery of Andean “quipu” knot-system closer to being unraveled

By David Blanco Bonilla

Lima, Nov 29 (EFE).- The enigma of the “quipus,” the complex system of knotted cords of different colors used in the Andes in pre-Hispanic times, has been investigated by US researcher Manuel Medrano, for whom the use of mathematics and digital resources is helping to get ever-closer to deciphering the quipu code.

Medrano has published “Quipus. Mil años de historia anudada en los Andes y su futuro digital” (Quipus. 1,000 years of knotted history in the Andes and its digital future), a book produced in Lima, Peru, by Planeta and in which he offers an historical synthesis and an up-to-date discussion of academic knowledge on the knot system, which – his research reveals – consists of a series of “genres” that go beyond merely a system for counting or recording quantities.

The researcher, who has a degree in applied mathematics from Harvard University and currently works in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told EFE that his book also seeks to include “the spirit of breaking some myths” about quipus that have become deep-rooted.

Traditionally, quipus have been considered to be an accounting system used by the Incas, with the keys to understanding it lost with the passage of time starting with the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.

In that regard, Medrano emphasized that there are “big myths” about the quipus that he’s seeking to challenge, including those that hold that the quipu system is “an invention of the Incas,” who lacked a “traditional” writing system.

“We know, thanks to this great historical trajectory, that it’s possible that there are pre-Wari quipus,” he said, referring to another great culture that developed between the 7th and 13th centuries in what is today Peru.

He added that one hears little talk “about the invention of it or who created it for the first time” and, thus, he decided to use the idea “of 1,000 years” of history “to clarify and emphasize that speaking about the Inca quipus is only speaking about 15 percent of their active use period in the Andes.”

Another big myth, he said, is that it was just “an accounting system,” and so he has proposed that there were “genres of quipus,” including those that were almost a kind of writing.

“To speak more precisely about what a quipu is and to what ends the Andean populations developed them, we need to speak of many more genres: What exactly are those genres? They have to be described and located, but speaking about multiple genres, for me, represents progress in this area of study,” he said.

In that regard, Medrano said that “it’s certain” that quipus were used “in some accounting contexts,” but he added that they were also used “in historic, demographic (and) calendar contexts.”

Thus, he came up with the “central idea” of the existence of “genres of quipus,” similar to the different styles and titles of books found in a library or modern-day bookstore.

“We can imagine that there were quipus devoted to … important data for different areas of the Andean world. So, one of our central tasks is to identify and propose potential groups of quipus among the almost 1,400 (examples) that survive in museums and private collections,” he said.

Medrano’s aim is to continue interpreting the elements of the quipus to identify criteria that allow one to distinguish between a quipu from one genre and one from another, a task that he said must be “one of the central problems” to be investigated in the coming years.

He said that the written word “is very complicated,” since its definition oftentimes depends on the cultural context, and thus he added that it would be better to say that “quipus constitute a three-dimensional form of writing.”

“The central problem is whether, from that point of view, we could continue defining the quipus as a form of writing and … that is an ongoing debate,” he admitted.

Aside from that, Medrano is optimistic about the progress being made in research into the quipus, work that has allowed investigators to “propose new hypotheses about the significance of particular elements” of the system by using computer techniques.

This approach enables researchers to move from the manual tabulation and analysis of quipu configurations to a large-scale examination that, he said, “represents one of the most promising avenues” for future research.

Along those lines, Medrano has begun “a big (research) project” that he hopes to develop over the coming five or six years, namely to write “a global history of quipus” starting with reviewing documents in archives and museums in various countries as well as already-published but little-known sources.

He said he suspects that more details will be identified about the original context of excavation of the quipus that “nowadays (simply appears) with a label saying ‘from Peru’ or ‘near Lima,'” whereby he hopes to continue contributing to the “decipherment efforts.”

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