Deciphering Inkan Khipu
Inkan Khipu. Image courtesy of Gary Urton
Khipu, the enigmatic knotted strings from the Inkan empire, appear to have been
used, at least in part, as "documents" in an accounting system passed up through
the Inkan bureaucracy, according to a new study published in the
12 August 2005 issue of the journal Science.
The Inkan empire was the
largest pre-Columbian empire in the New World, yet apparently it lacked a
written language. Many khipu, which consist of multiple knotted strings hanging
vertically from a single horizontal string, have been discovered, and they are
thought to have been used for some sort of record-keeping.
Gary Urton and Carrie
J. Brezine conducted a computer analysis of 21 khipu from the Inkan
administrative center of Puruchuco, on the central coast of Peru. Their findings
indicate that a subset of seven of the 21 khipu reflects how census and
"tribute" data were assembled and transferred between different levels of
authority within the Inkan administrative system. "Tribute" refers to the labor
tax imposed on subjects of the empire, who were assigned to work a certain
number of days each year on state projects.
Using data recorded in the khipu, Inka accountants may have assessed
tribute levels and assigned tasks to different numbers of local
workers. The authors identified three levels of administrative
authority reflected in the set of khipu, with the lowest level, for
example, representing the most local organization of tribute payers.
The study shows how a series of numerical values (represented by the
types of knots and their placement on the strings) on a lower-level
khipu would be summed within a higher-level khipu.
The authors note
that many questions remain to be answered, such as how the
khipu-keepers recorded the identities of objects people, animals,
produce, manufactured goods, etc. in addition to numerical values.
10 August 2005