We thought the Incas couldn’t write but these knots change everything

Daniel Cossins in New Scientist:

The Incas left no doubt that theirs was a sophisticated, technologically savvy civilisation. At its height in the 15th century, it was the largest empire in the Americas, extending almost 5000 kilometres from modern-day Ecuador to Chile. These were the people who built Machu Picchu, a royal estate perched in the clouds, and an extensive network of paved roads complete with suspension bridges crafted from woven grass. But the paradox of the Incas is that despite all this sophistication they never learned to write.

Or did they? The Incas may not have bequeathed any written records, but they did have colourful knotted cords. Each of these devices was called a khipu (pronounced key-poo). We know these intricate cords to be an abacus-like system for recording numbers. However, there have also been teasing hints that they might encode long-lost stories, myths and songs too.

In a century of study, no one has managed to make these knots talk. But recent breakthroughs have begun to unpick this tangled mystery of the Andes, revealing the first signs of phonetic symbolism within the strands. Now two anthropologists are closing in on the Inca equivalent of the Rosetta stone. That could finally crack the code and transform our understanding of a civilisation whose history has so far been told only through the eyes of the Europeans who sought to eviscerate it.

More here.