Harvard Students Unlocks Piece of the Khipu Mystery...

Although the Inca people employed ingenuity and technology for great gains, the Quechua language didn’t have a graphical writing system. Despite that, there is plenty of proof to show they were an organized people. The chaski were used to relay messages to far-flung places within the empire’s domain. The culture developed the mit’a, its own public service program to mobilize labor for civil works projects. Recently, though, a tool called the khipu has been receiving renewed attention thanks to a discovery made by an undergraduate student at Harvard.

Experts have long agreed that these pretty little devices were used to record important information, such as accounting and census data. As is typical in archeology, their contents and composition have been analyzed thoroughly. Many aspects of their usage remain a mystery, though, motivating eager people to continue examining them.

Manny Medrano is one such individual. An Applied Mathematics major, he took a course in archaeology that may end up defining his academic focus going forward. While staying around campus during spring break, he decided to help Professor Gary Urton decipher some things about the khipu, and to do so, he put himself in the place of the Inca. He thought about how ancient census agents could go about collecting personal details in a consistent, systematic way. He noticed, for example, the repetition of cord colors and styles in khipus. He took a close look at written Spanish census records and noticed that first names like Jose and Felipe appeared with a similar frequency. His research seems to have revealed more about the meaning behind these cryptic sets of braided fibers.

Could there be even more information embedded in the knots, such as details about the societal ranking of individuals in ancient communities? A full report on the recent work of Medrano and Urton is slated for this month’s release of the scholarly journal Ethnohistory.

There are some 600 different khipus in public and private collections. Some are quite beautiful in appearance, worthy of a place in some of the world’s most prestigious galleries. Museums in Germany and Peru provide visitors with unique opportunities to examine khipus up close and further hypothesize about how they were used. Interested in having an expert-guided custom Peru tour of archeological wonders?  Talk to top-rated Kuoda Travel to learn about your options.