Quipu Found Suggests Inca 'Language'

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January 3, 2016

Archaeologists have found new evidence in the ongoing search for a centuries-old mystery: how the Inca used the quipu as a written language.

In 2013, excavators at a site 100 miles south of Lima, Perua, called Incahuasi a number of quipus, or knotted string devices, in a storage house, buried underneath desert-preserved produce. As a result, the archaeologists think that the quipus might have been used as a way to keep track of beans, corn, chile peppers, peanuts, and other items of produce common to the Inca, a civilization that flourished along the western coast of South America from the early 13th Century to the late 16th Century. One famous remnant of the Inca Empire is Machu Picchu.

A quipu had a main cord, off which dangled a number of cotton or wool strings. Each string had a number of knots, in different locations up and down the strings, which were of different colors and were often twisted in different patterns. The number of variables is extensive; even so, scientists and historians have understood the basics of the Inca numerical system, as evidenced by the quipu. What has been lacking is anything using not numbers but letters. The Inca did not have a written language.

The site at Incahuasi has yielded 29 quipus, which are about 500 years old. One quipu was found with a knot untied, which is thought to have symbolized an "erasing."

The quipus were found in a nondescript brick house in an area featuring housing. Also found were mummies, bags of human bones, pots, and rolled-up textiles.

Incahuasi itself was a thriving city in the late 1400s and early 1500s. The city's name means "house of the Inca emperor," and the city was prominent in the Inca takeover of the southern coast of what is now Peru.

Quipu is the Spanish spelling. Another spelling, khipu, comes from the word "knot" in the native Inca language.

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