Writing with twisted cords: the inscriptive capacity of Andean khipus

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Abstract

Two newly discovered khipu (Andean twisted cord) epistles are presented as evidence that khipus could constitute an intelligible writing system, accessible to decipherment. Recent scholars have asserted that khipus were merely memory aides recording only numbers, despite Spanish witnesses who claimed that Inka era (1400 - 1532 CE) khipus encoded narratives and were sent as letters. In 2015, the author examined two khipus preserved by village authorities in Peru. Villagers state that these sacred khipus are narrative epistles about warfare. Analysis reveals that the khipus contain 95 different symbols, a quantity within the range of logosyllabic writing, and notably more symbols than in regional accounting khipus. A shared, mutually comprehensive communication system of such complexity presupposes a writing system, possibly logosyllabic. At the end of each khipu epistle, cord sequences of distinct colours, animal fibres and ply direction appear to represent lineage ("ayllu") names.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)412-419
JournalCurrent Anthropology
Volume58
Issue number3
Early online date19 Apr 2017
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2017

Keywords

  • Khipus
  • Writing systems
  • Inka
  • Andes

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