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Signs of the Inka Khipu

Gary Urton
Copyright Date: 2003
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  • Book Info
    Signs of the Inka Khipu
    Book Description:

    In an age when computers process immense amounts of information by the manipulation of sequences of 1s and 0s, it remains a frustrating mystery how prehistoric Inka recordkeepers encoded a tremendous variety and quantity of data using only knotted and dyed strings. Yet the comparison between computers and khipu may hold an important clue to deciphering the Inka records. In this book, Gary Urton sets forth a pathbreaking theory that the manipulation of fibers in the construction of khipu created physical features that constitute binary-coded sequences which store units of information in a system of binary recordkeeping that was used throughout the Inka empire.

    Urton begins his theory with the making of khipu, showing how at each step of the process binary, either/or choices were made. He then investigates the symbolic components of the binary coding system, the amount of information that could have been encoded, procedures that may have been used for reading the khipu, the nature of the khipu signs, and, finally, the nature of the khipu recording system itself-emphasizing relations of markedness and semantic coupling. This research constitutes a major step forward in building a unified theory of the khipu system of information storage and communication based on the sum total of construction features making up these extraordinary objects.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79786-4
    Subjects: Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Memory, Writing, and Record Keeping in the Inka Empire
    (pp. 1-36)

    It is one of the great ironies of the age in which we live that the cacophony of computer-based, electronically produced information that suffuses our every waking moment is carried into our consciousness on patterned waves of just two signs:1and0. This, of course, is no news. We have all been made aware since the dawn of the present Information Age that the ongoing revolution in computing technology rests on a system of binary coding. I discuss the matter at length below, but I would clarify here that by “binary coding,” I mean a system of communication based...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Theory and Methods in the Study of Khipu Binary Coding
    (pp. 37-59)

    In this study, I propose to address the questions of Inka recording and writing by putting forth a new theory on the methods that I believe may have been used to encode and decode (or read) information in these devices. The procedure that I use for presenting and elaborating this theory takes the form of a systematic and comprehensive accounting of the various construction techniques involved in the fabrication of khipu. Because of its careful attention to the description of form and variability in these textile fabrications, the theory developed herein has the virtue that if the general and admittedly...

  6. CHAPTER 3 The Physical Components of Khipu Binary Coding
    (pp. 60-88)

    With the discussions in the previous two chapters as background, we now begin the description of the various components and phases of actually fabricating a khipu by means of performing the seven operations, or stages, of binary decision making and material and string manipulation. The process would have begun, I suggest, with the selection of the construction material.

    In respect to their material composition, khipu are generally made of one or the other of two classes of fibers: cotton or camelid hairs. Cotton was decidedly the material of choice in producing khipu strings, at least as judged by surviving samples,...

  7. CHAPTER 4 The Linguistic Components of Khipu Binary Coding
    (pp. 89-113)

    In this chapter, we turn first to the question of the organization of numbers in Quechua, which was the lingua franca and language of administration in the Inka Empire (see Mannheim 1991). This is obviously a large, complex subject and therefore one to which we cannot do full justice within the confines of the present study (see Urton 1997). Nonetheless, it is important to analyze the ways in which numbers— the multitermed continuum par excellence for modifying, classifying, and organizing relations between objects in the world (being matched in this respect perhaps only by colors)—can be understood to have...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Khipu Sign Capacity and Code Conversion
    (pp. 114-134)

    Having provided an overview of the basic structural properties and the physical and linguistic features of the (hypothetical) binary coding system of the khipu, I now address two important issues of a more pragmatic nature. The first question concerns the information storage capacity of this coding system (Figure 5.1).How much information could the khipu encode? Phrased another way, how many unique signs could be produced from the potential variation of characters composing the seven-bit knots? Was the storage capacity of khipu sufficient to accommodate the distinctions characteristic of, for instance, logographic, syllabic, logosyllabic, and other types of signing systems? The...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Sign Theory, Markedness, and Parallelism in the Khipu Information System
    (pp. 135-160)

    I want to address one general reflection on the information presented here on binary coding and two large interpretive issues to bring more focused theoretical and analytical perspectives to the material presented in the preceding chapters. The reflection, which concerns what we could call the “salience” of binary coding, will be taken up immediately below. Of the two larger issues, the first concerns the question:How were signs constituted in this system and how might they have expressed meaning? The second issue concerns the nature of relations between and among the sign units that were twisted, dyed, and tied into the...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Conclusions
    (pp. 161-164)

    I return, finally, to the question with which I began this study: Did khipu record keeping represent a system of mnemonics? If so, bearing in mind the great range of types of mnemonic systems and devices discussed in Chapter 1, what type of memory scheme was it? Or was this instead a full-fledged writing system, capable of signing values from phonograms to logograms, as well as ideas, mythemes, and other general conventional values? Or do we, perhaps, need to come up with some other, new designation for the kind of system of record keeping represented by the khipu? Perhaps for...

  11. APPENDIX Tabular Description of Khipu UR19 from Chachapoyas
    (pp. 165-168)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 169-174)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 175-194)
  14. Index
    (pp. 195-202)