I’ve been watching a video lecture on the Inca and their system of record-keeping on knotted cords (khipus, or quipus). There’s some disagreement among historians (or is it archaeologists?) over whether this was a system of writing, or whether khipus were limited to keeping records of inventory and service and such. Apparently the Inca did send messages in the form of khipus and also had libraries of them, which suggests that it really was writing.
(By “writing”, I assume they mean a way of representing language. If “writing” meant marks on a surface to represent language, then knots wouldn’t qualify. But that’s sort of beside the point.)
I’m fascinated by the different ways people have found to communicate information and then store the information. First there are the languages themselves: spoken languages, tonal or not, and also sign languages. One way of preserving information is to memorize it, but the memorized information only lasts as long as the memorizer (if not passed on) and only exists where the memorizer does.
Visible marks on a surface can last beyond a person’s lifetime (sometimes), can be seen equally well by many people, and are portable (sometimes). I said “visible” marks, but then there’s braille, which is meant to be felt. Braille depends on the previous existence of our alphabet, but history could have gone differently and something like braille could have been our form of writing. We would feel our messages and records of inventory, instead of looking at them. Such a system wouldn’t have been useful for inscriptions that were meant to be seen from a distance, though.
I said things could have gone differently, and apparently they did go differently in South America (though not resulting in braille). Instead of painting or scratching marks on surfaces, they knotted cords in complicated arrangements, with various colors and twists. The information lasted pretty well—there would be a lot more khipus to look at if the Spanish hadn’t burned so many—and was very portable. On the other hand, this system doesn’t lend itself to official inscriptions and mottos carved ostentatiously into stone. The Inca could represent important events in architecture, sculpture, and paint, but archaeologists would probably have liked some inscriptions to go with them.
If the Spanish hadn’t shown up when they did, would the Inca have eventually created a visual representation of a khipu? That is, marks on a surface to represent knots that represent language? Or would they have done something different, something that I can’t imagine, just as I wouldn’t have thought of using knots as writing in the first place? (Nor would I have thought of magnetized media, etc., to represent marks that represent language, but other people did.)
One further idle thought—why did their history go as it did? Why and how did someone, long, long ago, start keeping records on a cord?
We’ll never know.
Till next post.