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Lost 'writing' of the Incas partially deciphered

The lost “written” language of the Incas, which used twists of coloured animal hair rather than ink and paper, has been partially deciphered by an anthropologist at the University of St Andrews, potentially shedding light on the mysterious South American civilisation.

Lost 'writing' of the Incas partially deciphered
Coloured pendants on Collata khipu A. Note cayte at far left [Credit: Dr Sabine Hyland/
University of St Andrews]
Dr Sabine Hyland, of the School of Philosophy, Anthropology and Film Studies at the University, has managed to translate the meaning of some names recorded on these twisted cords, which are known as “khipus”.

This discovery opens up the possibility of deciphering the mysterious Inca string writing, which would dramatically increase the current understanding of Inca civilization, the largest indigenous empire of the Americas.

It had already been established that the khipus – which are made using cotton or different coloured fibre from animals such as alpacas, llamas and deer – were used by the Incas to record numerical accounts, but until recently, there was no evidence they had been used to record narratives.

Lost 'writing' of the Incas partially deciphered
Khipu A’s top cord with ribbons [Credit: Dr Sabine Hyland/
University of St Andrews]
However, Dr Hyland has now discovered that the khipus were used in a logosyllabic system like Classic Mayan, where each logo (in this case a khipu pendant cord) represents a phonetic syllable – the first evidence that the Incas possessed phonetic writing.

She has managed to phonetically decipher two lineage names on the khipus so far, and is continuing field and archival research to decipher the rest.

Lost 'writing' of the Incas partially deciphered
Dr Sabine Hyland and khipu board ayacucho 
[Credit: University of St Andrews]
Dr Hyland was able to make her discovery after being granted the rare opportunity to examine two logosyllabic khipus guarded by residents of the remote village of San Juan de Collata in the Peruvian Andes, in research funded by the National Geographic Society.

Village authorities invited Hyland to examine their khipus, which were created in the 18th century as letters exchanged by local leaders in a revolt against Spanish authority, and are the only Andean phonetic khipus ever identified.

The Collata khipus, as they are known, contrast sharply with the regional accounting khipus. They are the first ever reliably identified as narrative epistles by the descendants of their creators and indicate a widespread, shared writing system used in the Huarochiri province in the 18th century.

Analysis of the khipus revealed they contain 95 different symbols, a quantity within the range of logosyllabic writing systems, and notably more symbols than in regional accounting khipus. At the end of each khipu, three-cord sequences of distinct colours, fibres and ply direction appear to represent lineage (“ayllu”) names.

Lost 'writing' of the Incas partially deciphered
Lineage (“ayllu”) chief insignia bag on khipu A [Credit: Dr Sabine Hyland/
University of St Andrews]
The Collata khipus express syllables in a profoundly Andean fashion, using differences among the fibres of various animals, such as vicuña, alpaca and deer to indicate meaning. The reader must often feel the cords by hand to distinguish the fibre sources of these three-dimensional texts.

Collata khipus share unique structural features with Inca animal fibre khipus, underscoring the continuity between Inca woollen khipus and the Collata ones. The epistolary khipus of Collata indicate that Andean khipus could constitute an intelligible writing system.

The findings are published in the journal Current Anthropology.

Source: University of St Andrews [April 21, 2017]

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