Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records

Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records

Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records

Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records

Synopsis

In an age when computers process immense amounts of information by the manipulation of sequences of 1s and 0s, it remains a frustrating mystery how prehistoric Inka recordkeepers encoded a tremendous variety and quantity of data using only knotted and dyed strings. Yet the comparison between computers and khipu may hold an important clue to deciphering the Inka records. In this book, Gary Urton sets forth a pathbreaking theory that the manipulation of fibers in the construction of khipu created physical features that constitute binary-coded sequences which store units of information in a system of binary recordkeeping that was used throughout the Inka empire.Urton begins his theory with the making of khipu, showing how at each step of the process binary, either/or choices were made. He then investigates the symbolic components of the binary coding system, the amount of information that could have been encoded, procedures that may have been used for reading the khipu, the nature of the khipu signs, and, finally, the nature of the khipu recording system itself- emphasizing relations of markedness and semantic coupling. This research constitutes a major step forward in building a unified theory of the khipu system of information storage and communication based on the sum total of construction features making up these extraordinary objects.

Excerpt

It is one of the great ironies of the age in which we live that the cacophony of computer-based, electronically produced information that suffuses our every waking moment is carried into our consciousness on patterned waves of just two signs: 1 and 0. This, of course, is no news. We have all been made aware since the dawn of the present Information Age that the ongoing revolution in computing technology rests on a system of binary coding. I discuss the matter at length below, but I would clarify here that by “binary coding,” I mean a system of communication based on units of information that take the form of strings of signs or signals, each individual unit of which represents one or the other of a pair of alternative (usually opposite) identities or states; for example, the signal may be on or off (as in a light switch), positive or negative (as in an electrical current), or 1 or 0 (as in computer coding). One can argue that it is the simplicity of binary coding that gives computing technology and its information systems their great flexibility and seemingly inexhaustible expansiveness. in this study, I explore an earlier and potentially equally powerful system of coding information that was at home in pre-Columbian South America and which, like the coding systems used in present-day computer language, was structured primarily as a binary code.

After the above grandiose introduction, it may come as a letdown to the reader to learn that we do not yet know, in fact, how to interpret or read the majority of the information that is presumably encoded in the recording system that I describe and analyze in this book. the system in question is that of the Inka khipu. Khipu (knot; to knot) is a term drawn from Quechua, the lingua franca and language of administration of the Inka Empire (ca. 1450–1532 C.E.). the khipu were knotted-

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