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Inca Writing

Alpacas and the Andean culture were (and are) inextricably linked.  Textiles were a central part of society.  Khipus - intricately knotted strings -  are acknowledged as being used for mathematical records.  In recent decades theories have emerged that they and other forms of textiles actually formed the basis a written language for the Inca peoples.

tocapuIn 1979 William Burns Glynn postulated that the Inca, long thought to be lacking a written language, actually had an alphabet of twelve letters and ten numbers.  In his 1990 book Legado de Los Amautas (Legacy of the Wise Men) he described how he came to this conclusion after examining illustrations of ceremonial robes in a 1,200 page letter to Phillip III of Spain written by an Andean writer named Waman Puma.

Burns Glynn believed that he had discovered repeating symbols woven into the robes - so called tocapu - that he could translate into spoken words.

His ideas have yet to be widely accepted, particularly in the United States. The conundrum here is that it may be impossible to prove, or disprove, his theory. So few examples of Incan civilization remain after its destruction at the hands of the Spanish conquerers that his theory  is likely to be relegated to the fringes of Anthropology and Linguistics, where it has been for the past thirty years.

However, there is a growing consensus that the Inca had to have had a system of written language in order to form and maintain an empire that stretched across thousands of miles of rugged terrain.

That brings us back to the Khipu.

Gary Urton, professor of anthropology at Harvard University, has identified a potentail 7-bit binary system represented by the knots and connections of the khipu. 

Combining color and the organization of the knots, the khipu has a potential of 1536 distinct representations - double the amount of ancient Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics and roughly equal to Sumerian cuneiform.

If true, this would mean that the Inca had developed a binary system over 500 years before the first computer!

It would also mean that the Inca system of written language would be the world's only three-dimensional writing system!!

As far fetched as the idea may seem, there is some evidence in support of such a system.  The Spanish recorded capturing a native trying to conceal a khipu that he said recorded everything done in his homeland, "both the good and the evil."

Without something akin to the Rosetta Stone any theory about Inca writing is likely to remain nothing more than theory and speculation.  Still, it is fascinating to think that alpacas and their fiber provided the medium of writing used by their masters.

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