Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

The Paradox of (Inka) History

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

The Paradox of (Inka) History

Article excerpt

The Paradox of (Inka) History Inka History in Knots: Reading Khipus as Primary Sources by Gary Urton (University of Texas Press, 2017)

Some years ago I wenl lo the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, in Italy's Alto Adige, to gaze upon Ötzi. Better known as the Iceman, Ötzi was an early Bronze Age traveler and homicide victim whose well-preserved body was accidentally discovered in 1991 as it emerged Trom a melting glacier. But however interesting it was to see the blackened body of the poor fellow in deep-freeze storage. more compelling to me were the interpretive exhibits displaying all the equipment that Ötzi had with him when he was assassinated. from his boots and leggings to his backpack. A goodly amount of his stuff was held together by string and cord made from the bast fibers of lime wood. At one interpretive station I sat down to learn how to make Ötzi-rope. It's an addictive experience. If you've done it you'll nod knowingly as I describe how the twist of the strands of fiber has to turn against the rotation of the braid, because if you don't, the thing just unravels. It is nearly impossible to explain this in words. It's a kind of skill that is first learned in the fingers and then remembered by the fingers.

Bear this in mind when you sit down to read Gary Urton's new book; it's helpful to have some cord in hand when you do so. I used a nice. round shoelace. Are you curious to know what an S-twist is and why is it diferent from the Z-twist? Just do it; you'll figure it out. One helpful diagram has pictures of all the major knots. including the long knots that sign the digits from one to nine. The first one I tried was a real mess. but in time. I got it right. This experience. however fleeting'. was central to my appreciation of the book. It made me feel what it was like to be a kh.ipnkam.ayuq. a maker of khipus.

Khipus. consisting of knots on cords. were the devices used by Inkas to keep their accounts. Urton proposes to write a new kind of Inka history from these sources. As Urton would be the first to acknowledge.Inka History in Knots is not itself a history. At the heart of the book lies a series of chapters. some of them filled with dense mathematics-based reasonings that bring the reader up-to-date on some of the main lines of khipu studies. The chapters are bookended by a proposal to rethink the kind of Inka history that we ought to be writings Inka history may never fit the linear narrative we typically associate with accounts of the past. But the problem here doesn't necessarily lie with the primary sources available from Tawantinsuyu. It may lie instead with the narrative box into which we have been trying to package those sources.

History. it is often said. is written by the victors. In the case of the Inkas. much of that history has been based on Spanish accounts. meaning that we see Inka civilization through the eyes of the conquerors. Generations of scholars have expressed their misgivings about the need to give credence to such sources. In the same way that archaeologists constantly remind themselves that processes of site formation skew the available evidence. historians are skeptical about their own evidence. They approach any given document with the assumption that its author was perfectly capable of being mistaken or of lying. Those who deal with documents left by colonial powers or other dominant elites. in contexts where power relations are so nakedly present. are especially attentive to the fictions of the written record.

Where available. the findings of historical archaeology sometimes provide a check against the tissue of falsehoods that suffuses every document. As Urton points out. however. archaeology is not a wholly satisfying alternative. Archaeology and archaeoscience are constantly generating new information in the form of artifacts. sites. isotopes. and so on. Yet even with the best intentions in the world. no archaeologist can avoid putting words in someone else's mouth. …

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