Village authorities insisted on handling the khipus without gloves
to feel the fibre differences. (Credit: William Hyland)
Two vibrant bundles of string, over 10,000 feet high in the Peruvian Andes, may hold clues for deciphering the ancient code of the Inca civilization.
Kept as heirlooms by the community of San Juan de Collata, the strings are khipus, devices of twisted and tied cords once used by indigenous Andeans for record keeping. Anthropologists have long debated whether khipus were simply memory aids — akin to rosary beads — or a three-dimensional writing system. The latter seems more possible, and decipherment more feasible, according to new research on the Collata khipus, published Wednesday in Current Anthropology.
In the study, University of St. Andrews anthropologist Sabine Hyland analyzed string color, fiber and twist direction to identify 95 unique signs — enough to constitute a writing system — and proposed a phonetic decipherment of the khipus’ final strings, thought to represent family lineage names.
“If that’s the case, that would be groundbreaking,” says Galen Brokaw, a scholar of Latin American Studies at Montana State University, who was not involved in the study. “The challenge is to find more sources, more khipu … more extensive evidence” to support this hypothesis.