Monday, February 1, 2010 | By: Khush Singh-Celebrity & Indian Bridal Makeup Artist

Archaeological Breakthrough via Computer

Two Harvard University researchers believe they have uncovered the meaning of a group of Incan khipus, cryptic assemblages of string and knots that were used by the South American civilization for record-keeping and perhaps even as a written language.

Researchers have long known that some knot patterns represented a specific number. Archeologist Gary Urton and mathematician Carrie Brezine report today in the journal Science that computer analysis of 21 khipus showed how individual strings were combined into multilayered collections that were used as a kind of ledger.

The ledger could then be used to transfer data and instructions between regional centers and the Incan capital, Cusco.

"What we see is information moving vertically," Urton said.

Local scribes might be summing up production of food crops such as potatoes or beans, and passing the data upward to regional administrators. Alternatively, the information could be flowing downward with regional administrators setting production quotas.

Urton and Brezine believe they may have identified the first "word" inscribed in khipus, the name of the city where a group of them were found -- a potential first step in deciphering a written language.

Archeologists have been fascinated by the khipus for decades because the Inca -- unlike the Maya, Chinese, Egyptian, Aztec and all other powerful cultures -- had no language inscribed in stone or written on parchment, paper, bark or other materials.

The complexity of the khipus, also called quipus, has made them a potential candidate to fill such a role. But interpreting them has proved particularly intractable.

Investigators have searched in vain for the Incan equivalent of the Rosetta stone, in which the same text was written in Egyptian hieroglyphics and two other languages.

Only about 700 or so khipus, which are typically made of cotton string, are known to exist in museums around the world. The Spanish conquistadors considered them idolatrous objects and destroyed tens of thousands of them as they forced conquered natives to adopt the Spanish writing system.

The oldest of the khipus in museums date to the late 8th century BC, but earlier this year, Peruvian archeologist Ruth Shady said she had discovered a khipu that is at least 4,500 years old in the ancient pre-Incan city of Caral.


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