I just finished reading “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C. Mann and am fascinated by his Appendix B – Talking Knots. It discusses khipu (quipu), a language created by the Inka using knotted cords. Not many khipu survive and scholars haven’t been able to completely decipher the language yet. Some khipu apparently are numeric, tracking things like census figures and inventories of goods, but there are khipu that don’t follow a numeric system.
It took an incredibly long time before scholars got the bright idea to show khipu to a textile specialist (in 1997, according to Mann’s book), and the expert, William J. Conklin, discovered that it wasn’t just the knots that were saying something. He looked at the color of the fibers and the way they were spun and “realized that 90 percent of the information was put into the string before the knot was made.” (pg. 347)
Being a fiber artist, don’t you know that now I want to see khipu up close. I want to examine them and see if any insight comes to me about how to translate the non-numeric ones. According to Mann, researchers are now looking for “an Inka Rosetta stone” (pg. 348) that will enable them to translate khipu.
One of the lead researchers in khipu is Gary Urton. He believes, according to Mann, that the khipu language is like a “three-dimensional binary code, unlike any other form of writing on earth.” (pg. 347) How cool is that?
Here are further articles on khipu if any of you fiber artist out there want to try to figure this out.
An aside: Cuneiform was mentioned in relation to khipu in Mann’s book, so I looked that up online too. Here’s the Wikipedia page on cuneiform and here’s a fun page from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology that allows you to see your name in cuneiform.