Over 10,000 feet high in the Peruvian Andes, two vibrant bundles of string, may hold clues for deciphering the Inca civilisation‘s ancient code. The strings are khipus, devices of twisted and tied cords, kept as heirlooms by the community of San Juan de Collata, and once used by indigenous Andeans for record keeping. The anthropologist Sabine Hyland, identified 95 unique signs by analysing string color, fiber and twist direction, which were thought to represent family lineage names.
The Khipu Code
The strings usually consist of a top cord and attached pendants, where the complex khipus contained as many as 1,500 pendants branched over six levels of subsidiaries. The simpler ones were apparently used by herders to count their animals. Most of the scholars from the 20th century believed that Khipus were used to record numerical data such as censuses, tributes, inventories. Some researcher believed there was nothing to decipher in the knots while some believed that it was impossible that Inca people did not have some form of writing.
According to the Spaniards, rituals, letters, and narrative histories could also be encoded in the khipus, which is why researchers have speculated that as knots represents numbers, features like color, fiber, cord groupings, and twist direction might also signify additional information.
Phonetic Potential of the Collata Khipus
Most of the Khipus are ancient artefacts however, some of them were made and used in the 20th century in some remote mountain villages. No one can read them but they are still kept as cultural patrimony, such as the Collata Khipus which, Hayland – the first outsider to view them, was invited by the villagers. The two khipus comprise 487 pendants cords, dyed 14 colors and made from six animal fibres. The combination of fibre, twist direction, and colours create 95 distinct symbols with signs for full words and phonetic sounds.
Recognizing this phonetic potential, Hyland applied principles of decipherment and based on community interviews, Hyland claimed the strings were narrative letters sent between Collata and the nearby village of Casta. The final strings likely represent the senders’ names, for example, one of the khipus is said to have been made by the Alluka family lineage of Collata. Correlating the sounds in this name, she claimed that blue llama cord, twisted clockwise, symbolized the “ka” sound, translating the final strings as Yakapar: one of the only two lineages in Casta.
A Khipus Key?
Though, Hyland’s phonetic code works for the final strings of the Collata khipu, more research is needed to see if it applies to all the khipus from ancient times. Researchers claim that Phonetic symbols may have been limited to proper names or used more broadly. They also claim that the symbolic conventions of khipus likely changed across time, space and contexts.
Apparently the the logosyllabic features could be a result of the contact with Western writing systems, rather than a continuity with the original Inca khipus. The Collata khipus rely on three-dimensional symbolism, distinct from European-style writing. Also, Hyland maintains that Collata khipus sure might preserve coding practices from the ancient times as they structurally, are very similar to Inca-era khipus made from animal fibres.
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