First Inca Word Emerges


By Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News

Aug. 16, 2005— Puruchuco — the name of a city near modern Lima, Peru — could be the first intelligible word to be heard from the vanished Inca civilization, according to a study published in the current issue of Science.

The site of an Inca palace, the word Puruchuco would have appeared in the form of a characteristic series of three figure-of-eight knots at the start of several khipu.

Khipu are mysterious assemblages of colored knotted strings that have been found at various Inca sites.

Located in the Andean highlands of Chile and Colombia around 1200 A.D., the Inca ruled the largest empire on Earth by the time their last emperor, Atahualpa, was garroted by Spanish conquistadors in 1533.

The advanced civilization left no written language, but it did leave hundreds of enigmatic khipu, decorative objects consisting of one main cord to which several pendant strings are attached. These strings can carry offshoot strings, and they bear clusters of knots.

In 1923, science historian L. Leland Locke proved that the khipu were more than decorative; they were a sort of textile abacus, their knots used to record calculations.

But Locke's rules decoded only a small percentage of the existing 700 khipu that survived the Spanish destruction, failing to take into account even one-half of the total information encoded in them.

Anthropologist Gary Urton and mathematician Carrie Brezine at Harvard University have partly unravelled the knotty code by extracting the first Inca word and deciphering the math from a series of khipus.

The knotty devices were used as ledger books in a sophisticated accounting system "in which census and tribute data were synthesized, manipulated, and transferred between different accounting levels in the Inca administrative system," said the researchers.

Urton and Brezine used a computer database packed with any possible data on nearly half of the 700 known khipu to analyze 21 khipu recovered all together in 1956 near a palace at the Inca administrative center of Puruchuco.

The computer data showed that seven of the 21 khipu were numerically related, uncovering the first mathematical bond between khipu.

Basically, the summed values of all strings of the same color of one khipu matched the sums on the corresponding strings of another khipu, and so on.

According to Urton, such compilation is consistent with the Inca state's enormous labor hierarchy, wherein groups of 10, 50, 100, 500 and more laborers nestled into increasingly large administrative units.

"Tribute in the Inca state was levied in the form of a labor tax. Each taxpayer was required to work a specified number of days each year on state projects... .," Urton said.

"Instructions of higher-level officials for lower-level ones would have moved, via khipu, from the top of the hierarchy down. This information would have been partitive in nature, with assignments made to groups of 1,000 workers broken down into two groups of 500, and so on.

"In the reverse direction, local accountants would forward information on accomplished tasks upward through the hierarchy, with information at each successive level representing the summation of accounts from the levels below," said Urton.

Moreover, all 21 khipu featured an "arrangement of three figure-eight knots at the start of the khipu," which the researchers believe represented "the place identifier, or toponym, Puruchuco."

"We suggest that any khipu moving within the state administrative system bearing an initial arrangement of three figure-eight knots would have been immediately recognizable to Inca administrators as an account pertaining to the palace of Puruchuco," Urton said.

Called "terrific, careful and great" by textile archaeologist Bill Conklin of the Textile Museum in Washington D.C., the research could pave the way to the first inventory of place names on khipu.