Dr. Gary Urton is one of the foremost scholars of quipu, the Incan system of knotted cords for record-keeping.
(The spelling “quipu” is Spanish. The Quechuan alternative is “khipu” where the “h” indicates an aspirated consonant.)
Dr. Urton is the author of Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records, where he unfurled the theory that khipus represent a seven-bit coding system, one that I found utterly unconvincing. In my review on Amazon, I picked apart his theory and compared his approach to discussing an Egyptian tombstone covered with hieroglyphics and spending all your time on categorizing them by shape and size without being able to understand a single one. Dr. Urton responded by saying “…my analogy to binary coding is just that, an analogy that is used to give the reader a general understanding of the type of system that is proposed…the theory of binary coding is put forward in this book in an attempt to find some new way(s) of working with these devices to move us to a new level of analysis and, hopefully, understanding.”
But I’m still not convinced. The theory is an “analogy”? It’s not supposed to be an explanation, but just an “attempt to move to a new level”?
Now the New York Times has reported important new research by Dr. Urton (see also the paper in Nature (subscribers only) and the report in Scientific American):
A new and possibly significant advance in deciphering the quipu system may now have been gained by two Harvard researchers, Gary Urton and Carrie J. Brezine. They believe they may have decoded the first word—a place name—to be found in a quipu, and have also identified what some of the many numbers in the quipu records may be referring to.
Any and all progress in deciphering khipus is welcome. However, looking at these newest findings from Dr. Urton (who has apparently discarded his 7-bit ASCII theory), I am once again underwhelmed.
It’s always been obvious that most khipus record numbers. To simplify a bit, the number 123 would be encoded in a khipu by tying one knot at the top of the cord, leaving a bit of space, tying two knots, leaving more space, then tying three knots, with a special twist indicating this is the last digit. That’s right—the Incas used base-10 arithmetic. The two major questions were: what was being recorded, and did some khipus encode non-numeric information—perhaps even a form of “writing”?
On the first topic, in his latest paper Dr. Urton merely “suspects” and thinks it “likely” that the numerical records are of labor quotas. (The Incan empire was sustained by a system of drafted labor.)
On the second, the “word” found and supposedly “decoded” was simply a 1-1-1 knot which is conjectured to be the name of the town where the khipu was found and presumably created. It’s like finding the number “367” on an Excel spreadsheet and imagining that it must be the code for the department of the guy that created it, and then saying that it’s a “word”.
The NYT thus goes completely overboard when it says that this “discovery” could “resolve a longstanding controversy by establishing that quipus included a writing system. That in turn would help explain the ‘Inca paradox,’ that among states of large size and administrative complexity the Inca empire stands out as the only one that apparently did not invent writing. The paradox would be resolved if indeed the quipu encode a writing system as well as numbers.”
This is absurd. A three-digit city code is not a “writing system”. Dr. Urton says “the use of conventional signs is my definition of writing.” Wrong. Using signs for numbers is not writing.
Another aspect of the new research is the finding that khipus formed a hierarchy, sort of a medieval Andean roll-up. The same numbers were found on two different khipus, and it’s believed that on the first it’s the Excel SUM function adding up all the individual numbers of hours of labor or heads of llama or number of virgins or whatever it was, which was then brought over to the second khipu as a line item to be added up into some kind of regional grand total. That’s interesting, but hardly surprising.
Sadly, we will probably never find the equivalent of the “Rosetta stone” for khipus. It’s essentially equivalent to the problem of someone in the year 2500 trying to unravel record-keeping in 2005 when all they have is 700 Excel expense reports. Urton and other researchers are now entering all extant khipus into computers to find new patterns—but there simply isn’t enough data there to crunch.