Sunday, May 21, 2017

Talking Knots

Here's one of those cultural twists and turns, well, knots, that I hope we encounter in Peru, the quipu [kee-poo], which our friends at Wikipedia describe this way:
Quipus, sometimes known as khipus or talking knots, were recording devices historically used in a number of cultures and particularly in the region of Andean South America. Similar systems were used by the ancient Chinese and native Hawaiians... A quipu usually consisted of colored, spun, and plied thread or strings made from cotton or camelid fiber. For the Inca, the system aided in collecting data and keeping records, ranging from monitoring tax obligations, properly collecting census records, calendrical information, and military organization.
 Our pals continue, saying,
The cords contained numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base ten positional system. A quipu could have only a few or up to 2,000 cords. The configuration of the quipus have also been "compared to string mops." Archaeological evidence has also shown a use of finely carved wood as a supplemental, and perhaps more sturdy, base on which the color-coordinated cords would be attached. A relatively small number have survived.
[And let's just stop to say, yes, Wikipedia may not be the best choice for that research paper, but it is our friend--don't let those dinosaur teachers tell you otherwise!]

The Ancient History folks will add this:
In the absence of an alphabetic writing system, this simple and highly portable device achieved a surprising degree of precision and flexibility. Using a wide variety of colours, strings, and sometimes several hundred knots all tied in various ways at various heights, quipu could record dates, statistics, accounts, and even represent, in abstract form, key episodes from traditional folk stories and poetry. 
Notice here the idea that these elaborate knots may have done more than been tallies for a useful, but limited accounting system.  This same article comments on the Incan math system (someone quiz Ann on this, and see if she's keeping up...), 

as well as a class of professional 'knot-talkers':
Naturally, to maximise the quipu's potential for information storage, it was better to have an accompanying oral record and so there grew a body of experts or masters, the khipu kamayuq (also quipucamayos). These individuals memorized the oral account which fully explained a particular quipu and, as the job was hereditary, the oral part was passed from generation to generation. There was a certain pressure attached to the job, however, as lapses in memory could be severely punished.
Ok, and I'm just going to speculate that 'severely punished' here meant more than getting zero on that quiz.  I haven't yet read much about the sense of humor among the Incan elite.

And here's a study that has investigated more recent, similar knot-communication systems, and may have more insight into the Incan method:  "Twisted Textile Cords May Contain Clues to Incan Messages."

I have to admit I don't know where we might encounter these on the trip.  I'd guess most likely in a museum in Cuzco.  Something to ask Jessica, our tour guide.

(This will be on the quiz.)

later, bob

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