Unraveling the Code of the Incan Khipu


Out of all the things a first-year student at Harvard could do during spring break, Manny Medrano, with the help of his professor, spent his making an archaeological breakthrough.

Gary Urton, professor of Pre-Columbian Studies at Harvard University, worked with Medrano to interpret a set of six khipus -- tied strings utilized for record-keeping by the Inca Empire. Matching the khipus to a Spanish census document from the colonial-era, Medrano and Urton revealed the importance of the cords in higher detail than in the past, with findings that could provide a deeper understanding of the Andean civilization’s daily life.

“There’s something in me, I can’t explain where it came from, but I love the idea of digging around and trying to find secrets hidden from the past,” Medrano said to the online magazine and travel company Atlas Obscura.

“The only sources we have at the present are chronicles of the Inca that were written by the Spaniards,” Urton said to Atlas Obscura. “We know in a lot of cases those histories were skewed by Spanish beliefs and Spanish motivations, and so we don’t really have any indigenous Inca history.”

The height of the Inca Empire was reached in Peru in the 15th and 16th centuries. They had established the largest and most complex society in the Americas when Spanish conquistadors invaded, and today, amazing architectures like Machu Picchu still survive. The Inca did not keep written records; the only records known to have been kept by the Inca are in the form of complicated tied khipu fabrics.

Harvard’s Khipu Database Project was started by Urton in 2002. Urton traveled around the world to museums and private collections documenting the number of knots, lengths of cords, colors of fibers, and other characteristics of more than 900 total Inca khipus. According to Urton, a general sense of what khipus represent has always been had by him and other researchers in the field, with many--they could tell--having to do with census data and others, registers of goods or calendar systems. But still, Urton and the other researchers did not understand the messages recorded in the khipus at a very detailed level. And, if the khipus recorded messages or cultural information in addition to numbers, their meanings were hard to understand for the modern scholar.

This all changed when a set of six khipus from the Santa River Valley region of Northwest 17th-century Peru was observed by Urton when he picked up a book one day and happened to see a Spanish census document from the same region and time period. “A lot of the numbers that were recorded in that census record matched those six khipus exactly,” Urton said.

The coincidence was exciting enough that Urton mentioned it at the end of class to his undergraduate students in the spring of 2016. And for Medrano, a freshman who was sitting in the lecture that day, the lead was too appealing to ignore. “I walked up to him and said: ‘Hey, spring break is coming up, if you need someone to put a few hours into this, I’d be happy to take a look,’” Medrano recalled.

Urton allowed Medrano to look into the Santa River Valley khipus and the Spanish census. “[I wasn’t] thinking he’d ever do much with it because I’d had one or two other people look at it before and nobody could ever come up with anything,” Urton said. These khipus are in a private collection in Peru, which meant that Medrano had to work from information Urton had recorded in his khipu database. “Medrano recalls looking through spreadsheets in Microsoft Excel, graphing some of the data, and enjoying the hunt for patterns,” Katherine Davis-Young wrote in an article for Atlas Obscura.

“I have a love of puzzles, just for entertainment. I love to do a Sudoku on a plane or something, but this is so much more profound,” Medrano said. He comes from a Mexican-American family and had no problem understanding the Spanish census document as he speaks Spanish. As an economics major, dealing with numbers and data came naturally to him as well. Noted by both Medrano and Urton, the challenge required the perfect balance of his skills and interests.

“Not every archaeology project operates in Excel,” Medrano pointed out. He “noticed that the way each cord was tied onto the khipu seemed to correspond to the social status of the 132 people recorded in the census document,” Davis-Young wrote. “The colors of the strings also appeared to be related to the people’s first names. The correlations seemed too strong to be a coincidence. After spring break, Medrano told his professor about his theories.”

“I just remember being pretty excited, that, ‘Wow! I think the guy’s got it,’” Urton says. “There were a couple of things that didn’t add up and I’d point that out and he’d take it back and work on it for a week or two and come back and he would have understood something about it at a deeper level.”

Over the next several months, Medrano worked with Urton compiling their findings into a paper. In December of 2017, Medrano was a 21-year-old junior majoring in economics. He had always found archaeology interesting and had enrolled in Urton’s course on the Inca civilization curious to study a historical period of which he didn’t know much. Their paper was published in the peer-reviewed journal Ethnohistory in January of 2018.

What’s most exciting to Urton and Medrano is the possibility to better understand Inca history from the point of view of the Indigenous people. “There’s a lot we can draw on from this one case,” Urton said, and he is optimistic that the six khipus examined in the research could be a key to decode the hundreds of others in his database. Medrano said, “history has been written from the perspective of the conquerors and to reverse that hierarchy is what I see this project as doing.”

[Sources: Atlas Obscura; Harvard University; Ethnohistory]

Excellent article, Moises. Good writing and fascinating information. – Shoko MiyagiUW-Madison (2020-07-23 18:08)
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