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Anthropologist Gary Urton untangles the mystery of Inkan khipus

Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies Gary Urton: ‘I kept running up against this statement of fact that beyond a certain level, we just didn’t know very much about the Inkas because they didn’t develop a system of writing.’ (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

Gary Urton’s research has him in knots. Literally.

Urton, the Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies, has made the study of Inkan khipus – knotted strings that recorded quantitative and narrative information about the great Andean empire – his life’s work. Several recent developments are bringing him closer to cracking the code of the khipus and, he says, expanding our understanding of the Inka Empire.

“[Khipus] are the only way that we could potentially move beyond the representation of these people through Spanish eyes or through the mute testimony of the archaeological record,” says Urton.

Urton, who joined the Harvard faculty in fall 2002, has been interested in khipus (he eschews the more common “quipu,” a hispanicized spelling of the word from the Quechua language) since he started studying Andean culture as a doctoral student.

“I kept running up against this statement of fact that beyond a certain level, we just didn’t know very much about the Inkas because they didn’t develop a system of writing,” he says. Contemporary knowledge of the Inkas (like “khipu,” Urton’s preferred spelling is closer to the original Quechua than the more common “Inca”) is limited to Spanish accounts written after the conquest.

Yet if the Inka lacked a graphic, two-dimensional system of writing, they did have a way of keeping records – and possibly telling stories – in the khipus. What could khipus teach us about the Inka Empire, Urton wondered? And how would they challenge our existing ideas about literacy?

Knots, numbers, and textiles

Khipus, of which nearly 600 are available for study in museums, are made of wool or cotton, constructed something like a grass skirt. From one main cord hang many pendants, from which many more knotted strings extend to create a dense hierarchy of strings. Harvard’s Peabody Museum has 12 excellent khipus, says Urton.

“They’re just beautiful objects,” he says, noting that the colors, materials, patterns of spinning (some strings are barber-pole striped, some are spun clockwise, others counterclockwise), and knot placement and tying direction all have potential significance.

Urton’s initial inquiry into khipus involved a year of fieldwork with weavers in central Bolivia, resulting in the book “The Social Life of Numbers: A Quechua Ontology of Numbers and Philosophy of Arithmetic” (University of Texas Press, 1997).

“It seemed to me that to begin to study the khipu you had to have a clear understanding of how Quechua-speaking people think about and use numbers and how they think about the structures of thread and textiles,” he says.

Over the past decade, Urton’s khipu research has taken him to museums around the world. Recently named a MacArthur Fellow (2001-05), Urton has been working to link his own careful, precise study of the construction of khipus and existing research on their numerical significance with Spanish Colonial documents that chart the meanings of the khipus.

“They recorded the Inka khipu-keeper coming before the Spanish scribe, standing there with his khipu and reading its contents, string by string,” says Urton. Yet while the Spanish documents provide invaluable insight into the khipus and the recorded lives of the Inkas, they don’t crack the khipu code.

“We have a sizeable number of khipus and we have about a dozen documents that are written up from the khipus. What we don’t have yet is a match between a document and a khipu,” says Urton. Finding that match, he says, would be “tremendously exciting.”

Untangling the khipu

Even if what Urton calls the “Rosetta khipu” never materializes, he’s more optimistic than ever that he and his colleagues might unravel the secrets of the khipus. The 1997 discovery of 32 khipus among 225 mummy bundles in northern Peru is unique in that it surrounds the khipus with other archaeological artifacts, giving them important context. What’s more, Urton has dated these khipus to between the end of the Inka Empire and the early Colonial period, and he has found Spanish written documents from that era that refer to record keeping by means of khipus.

Finding a direct match between a historical document and a khipu would help crack the code and give Urton a leap forward in his research.

“I’m not wildly optimistic by any means, but with this new set of materials, I think things are looking a little brighter,” he says.

Urton is also harnessing 21st century technology to more closely examine these 15th century artifacts (the Inkas dominated the South American Andes from 1425 to 1532 A.D.). Carrie Brezine, a software developer, mathematician, and textile specialist, joins him at Harvard; the two are creating a relational database to track the overwhelming amount of information contained on khipus.

Packed with data on each khipu – length of the main string, number of pendants, details on the knots, spin, and ply of each string – the database will help researchers find possibly significant patterns in the khipus.

Shedding new light on literacy

Not only could khipus potentially unlock the secrets of the Inka Empire, a better understanding of them could shed new light on literacy among pre-Columbian South American civilizations.

“It can give us a completely different perspective on questions of literacy, on the nature of signs,” says Urton. “If we determine that [the Inkas] constructed conventionalized signs using combinations of colors and threads turned in three-dimensional space … it’s a whole different context for the production of signs than we’ve ever known before.”

Thomas Cummins, Dumbarton Oaks Professor of the History of Pre-Columbian and Colonial Art, calls Urton’s research “provocative.”

“His work on khipus is at the cutting edge of trying to understand how the New World’s largest empire was able to run without the symbolic tools we associate with empirical control, that is, a system of writing or glyphs,” says Cummins.

Urton, who received the B.A. from the University of New Mexico, and the M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, joined the faculty of Colgate University in 1978 and says he would have been content to stay there had Harvard not offered him a position.

“What brought me here was the opportunity to work with Harvard students and faculty and with Harvard resources, especially the collections in the Peabody Museum and the Tozzer Library,” he says. Urton teaches courses on South American archaeology, comparative writing systems, and the archaeology of ethnicity.

In addition to his ongoing research on khipus, Urton is curating an exhibit of khipus at the Museo Chileno de Arte Pre-Colombino in Santiago, Chile, this summer; Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies is co-sponsor of the exhibit. It’s an example, says Urton, of the generous support Harvard has given him and his work.

“It really is a wonderful place to be,” he says. “It’s great coming to work every day.”