A Review of Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records

 

Knots of Knowledge

by | Dec 28, 2003

Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records By Gary Urton University of Texas, Austin: 2003, 202 pages

How people know things is as important for study as is what they know. Facts do not exist without a system of thought. How facts become facts, the basic units of knowledge, is crucial to any society. And because we don’t all know things the same way, facts are different. To ask what is a fact, some element of truth that can generally be agreed upon for particular societal needs, is not something to be dismissed. So, when a culture takes a different path toward knowledge, and the means of recording that knowledge is radically different than our own, we should prize that path in and of itself as a thing of beauty. We should regard this difference as a path to a critical understanding of our system. Unfortunately, we too often tend to marginalize these differences as inconsequential, especially when the facts derived from observed phenomena of different systems can be demonstrated to be wrong according to our own “objective” scientific system of knowledge. To our way of thinking, the constellation of stars we call the Milky Way is not a river in the sky, and that is a fact because, in fact, the Milky Way is composed of stars scattered in the universe.

Gary Urton has made it his career to study and explain different systems of knowledge, perhaps esoteric to us and perhaps with no applied value for us, that enable societies to operate by creating facts within an organized system of thought. His work has explored the multiple ways that Andeans create the knowledge necessary to produce and maintain their society. Urton, now Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies at Harvard, has based his studies on intensive fieldwork, archival research and object analysis of museum collections. His earliest work focused on the archeoastronomy of the Cuzco area where, for the Quechua speaking people, the Milky Way is, in fact, a river that performs a critical function in the cosmic redistribution of physical and moral resources. To Urton and others, it is not important that the Andeans may be objectively wrong in their knowledge, but rather that they believe in their interpretation sufficiently to ensure the ongoing of a social and economic system for the well being of all. This, after all, is a common necessity. For example, we believe sufficiently in pieces of paper, signed by a government official, that we exchange them for goods, but this exchange also requires a cosmic trust in a god. It is the intersection between phenomena and the system of their interpretation that is of interest. Urton therefore has also studied the Andean theory of numbers and the creation of history in an Andean village. His latest book Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted String Records builds upon these studies in order to investigate a particular Andean form of “inscribing” information that was used by the Inca to administer their empire, the largest and most complex in the Americas.

The khipu is a textile device composed of a main cord to which are attached other cords along which a series of knots can be made. A seemingly simple object, it was capable of keeping precise pre-Columbian statistical information as well as recording religious and historical accounts. Spaniards also recognized its reliability, and khipus and those literate in khipus,khipucamayocs, were called upon to give testimony in legal court cases and to recount Inka history. What is remarkable is that while the khipu was understood to be as accurate as writing by the Spanish, there is no detailed explanation of how the khipu operated. Therefore, the driving question of Urton’s study is “whether khipu(s) were respectively string-knot-based configurations whose purpose was to provide ‘cues’ to aid the Inka administrator who made any particular sample to recall a specific body of memorized information, or if these devices were constructed with conventionalized units of information that could be read by khipu makers throughout the empire.” In other words, was the khipu simply a mnemonic device that enabled an individual to recall information and therefore was idiosyncratic, or was it a device that was transparent, capable of being “read” by any one versed in the ‘language” of the khipu?

Urton states clearly that he believes that the khipu was not simply a mnemonic device as many scholars have suggested, but that it could transmit precise information to a broad khipu literate audience, independent of the author. And while Urton cannot yet prove his assertion, he lays out what he believes to be the “language” by which the khipu could be “read” independently. Writing in a clear, almost avuncular style, engaging the reader personally in his exploration, Urton describes the key elements of the khipu in which information could be encoded and extracted. The overriding principal is a binary code that is materially manifested throughout the stages of khipu making. The creation of each string is based on a conscious decision to spin and then ply it in one direction or another. That is, the binary units capable of encoding information begin at the creation of the khipu. Urton then goes on to demonstrate that every subsequent act in the khipu’s creation is based upon a binary and capable of storing data. As Urton points out, this system is remarkably similar to the binary code that underlies our computers. In some ways this should not be a surprise, as textile production in general begins with a set of binaries. The most primitive computer in the West was the Jacquard-Loom of 1801, that with punch cards allowed the loom to produce extremely complex patterns following an algorithm. However, the importance of Urton’s detailed descriptions of the binary code used in the khipu is that he does not fall back upon some universal concerning the binary nature of textile production. Rather, he locates the Andean capacity to encode information into the binaries of khipu construction because of their social knowledge. Here, Urton unveils his rich and subtle understanding of how Andean poetry, numbers and social organization employ similar organizing principals, and then drawing upon linguistic theory of “markedness” demonstrates the possibilities of how the binary structures of the khipu could express information independently.

The strength of Urton’s book is not that we can now extract facts from the khipus. Rather, Urton demonstrates the complexity of thought that went into the creation of the khipu itself. Whether someday we will be able to decipher and extract “facts” from khipus is unclear and perhaps less important than the system that Urton has eloquently presented. His theory of how khipus work now must be tested and we await the results.

University of Texas, Austin: 2003, 202 pages

How people know things is as important for study as is what they know. Facts do not exist without a system of thought. How facts become facts, the basic units of knowledge, is crucial to any society. And because we don’t all know things the same way, facts are different. To ask what is a fact, some element of truth that can generally be agreed upon for particular societal needs, is not something to be dismissed. So, when a culture takes a different path toward knowledge, and the means of recording that knowledge is radically different than our own, we should prize that path in and of itself as a thing of beauty. We should regard this difference as a path to a critical understanding of our system. Unfortunately, we too often tend to marginalize these differences as inconsequential, especially when the facts derived from observed phenomena of different systems can be demonstrated to be wrong according to our own “objective” scientific system of knowledge. To our way of thinking, the constellation of stars we call the Milky Way is not a river in the sky, and that is a fact because, in fact, the Milky Way is composed of stars scattered in the universe.

Gary Urton has made it his career to study and explain different systems of knowledge, perhaps esoteric to us and perhaps with no applied value for us, that enable societies to operate by creating facts within an organized system of thought. His work has explored the multiple ways that Andeans create the knowledge necessary to produce and maintain their society. Urton, now Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies at Harvard, has based his studies on intensive fieldwork, archival research and object analysis of museum collections. His earliest work focused on the archeoastronomy of the Cuzco area where, for the Quechua speaking people, the Milky Way is, in fact, a river that performs a critical function in the cosmic redistribution of physical and moral resources. To Urton and others, it is not important that the Andeans may be objectively wrong in their knowledge, but rather that they believe in their interpretation sufficiently to ensure the ongoing of a social and economic system for the well being of all. This, after all, is a common necessity. For example, we believe sufficiently in pieces of paper, signed by a government official, that we exchange them for goods, but this exchange also requires a cosmic trust in a god. It is the intersection between phenomena and the system of their interpretation that is of interest. Urton therefore has also studied the Andean theory of numbers and the creation of history in an Andean village. His latest book Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted String Records builds upon these studies in order to investigate a particular Andean form of “inscribing” information that was used by the Inca to administer their empire, the largest and most complex in the Americas.

The khipu is a textile device composed of a main cord to which are attached other cords along which a series of knots can be made. A seemingly simple object, it was capable of keeping precise pre-Columbian statistical information as well as recording religious and historical accounts. Spaniards also recognized its reliability, and khipus and those literate in khipus,khipucamayocs, were called upon to give testimony in legal court cases and to recount Inka history. What is remarkable is that while the khipu was understood to be as accurate as writing by the Spanish, there is no detailed explanation of how the khipu operated. Therefore, the driving question of Urton’s study is “whether khipu(s) were respectively string-knot-based configurations whose purpose was to provide ‘cues’ to aid the Inka administrator who made any particular sample to recall a specific body of memorized information, or if these devices were constructed with conventionalized units of information that could be read by khipu makers throughout the empire.” In other words, was the khipu simply a mnemonic device that enabled an individual to recall information and therefore was idiosyncratic, or was it a device that was transparent, capable of being “read” by any one versed in the ‘language” of the khipu?

Urton states clearly that he believes that the khipu was not simply a mnemonic device as many scholars have suggested, but that it could transmit precise information to a broad khipu literate audience, independent of the author. And while Urton cannot yet prove his assertion, he lays out what he believes to be the “language” by which the khipu could be “read” independently. Writing in a clear, almost avuncular style, engaging the reader personally in his exploration, Urton describes the key elements of the khipu in which information could be encoded and extracted. The overriding principal is a binary code that is materially manifested throughout the stages of khipu making. The creation of each string is based on a conscious decision to spin and then ply it in one direction or another. That is, the binary units capable of encoding information begin at the creation of the khipu. Urton then goes on to demonstrate that every subsequent act in the khipu’s creation is based upon a binary and capable of storing data. As Urton points out, this system is remarkably similar to the binary code that underlies our computers. In some ways this should not be a surprise, as textile production in general begins with a set of binaries. The most primitive computer in the West was the Jacquard-Loom of 1801, that with punch cards allowed the loom to produce extremely complex patterns following an algorithm. However, the importance of Urton’s detailed descriptions of the binary code used in the khipu is that he does not fall back upon some universal concerning the binary nature of textile production. Rather, he locates the Andean capacity to encode information into the binaries of khipu construction because of their social knowledge. Here, Urton unveils his rich and subtle understanding of how Andean poetry, numbers and social organization employ similar organizing principals, and then drawing upon linguistic theory of “markedness” demonstrates the possibilities of how the binary structures of the khipu could express information independently.

The strength of Urton’s book is not that we can now extract facts from the khipus. Rather, Urton demonstrates the complexity of thought that went into the creation of the khipu itself. Whether someday we will be able to decipher and extract “facts” from khipus is unclear and perhaps less important than the system that Urton has eloquently presented. His theory of how khipus work now must be tested and we await the results.

Fall 2003Volume III, Number 1

Tom Cummins is the Dumbarton Oaks Professor of the History of Pre-Columbian and Colonial Art and is the Acting Director of the David Rockefeller Center of Latin American Studies. He has published widely on Andean Art and Architecture.

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