Monthly Archives: August 2003



“If dogs could talk, it would take a lot of the fun out of owning one.”

Andy Rooney (1919 – )
U.S. News Commentator


“You are 87% water; the other 13% keeps you from drowning.”

P.E. Morris (unknown)

A picture named 12inca.jpg
Some sort of written language is the marker of a complex culture. While considered a complex civilization, the Inca were always lacking in a written language. MacArthur fellow, Harvard professor and anthropologist, Dr. Gary Urton, is publishing a book that suggests the Incan quipu (or Khipu) was their form of writing.

Quipu are bundles of strings with strangely complicated knot patterns. It has long been known that these quipu were used to record numerical quantities. Urton is the first to suggest that the quipu are actually a binary system for recording words in three dimensions. Much like early computers, Inca quipu would code letters in 7-bit groups that readers could easily decipher.

Dr. Robert Ascher, a retired Cornell archaeologist, and Dr. Marcia Ascher, a mathematician at Ithaca College, bolster this supposition by pointing out that khipu seemed to use numbers as both numbers and labels. In a study conducted about 20 years ago, they estimated that about 20 percent of existing khipu were “clearly nonnumerical” and could have been examples of an early form of writing.
According to Urton, the pattern of the knots, the order in which they appear and the color of the strings form the language.

[In order to be qualify as a written language, Urton must prove the quipu could be read by anyone. An individual record that could be deciphered by only the owner is not a writing system.]

He will make his argument in his book, Signs of the Inca Khipu, which will be published next month. If you’d like to learn more about it now, you can go to the NYTimes for the full story.

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