Alex Wright

Unraveling the Quipu

January 6, 2007

A few weeks ago I mentioned the Quipu, the ancient Incan "computer" that provided a tool for keeping track of information in a culture with no written language.

The latest Wired features an excellent piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Gareth Cook about recent efforts by Harvard researchers to decipher the mysteries of the Quipu (a.k.a. Khipu):

[I]n the early 1990s, Urton, one of the world's leading Inca scholars, spotted several details that convinced him the khipu contained much more than tallies of llama sales. For example, some knots are tied right over left, others left over right. Urton came to think that this information must signal something. Could the knotted strings also be a form of writing?
Urton knew that these findings were a tiny part of cracking the code and that he needed the help of people with different skills. So, early last year, he and a graduate student, Carrie Brezine, unveiled a computerized khipu database – a vast electronic repository that describes every knot on some 300 khipu in intricate detail. Then Urton and Brezine brought in outside researchers who knew little about anthropology but a lot about mathematics. Led by Belgian cryptographer Jean-Jacques Quisquater, they are now trying to shake meaning from the knots with a variety of pattern-finding algorithms, one based on a tool used to analyze long strings of DNA, the other similar to Google's PageRank algorithm. They've already identified thousands of repeated knot sequences that suggest words or phrases.

Now the team is closing in on what might be a writing system so unusual that it remained hidden for centuries in plain sight. If successful, the effort will rank with the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics and will let Urton's team rewrite history. But how do you decipher something when it looks completely unlike any known written language – when you're not even sure it has meaning at all?
Gareth Cook, Untangling the Mysteries of the Inca

File under: Informatics

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