It has always been relatively common knowledge that, despite their far-reaching civilisation and impressive infrastructure, the Inca people had no written language. However, this may in fact not be true, as anthropologists are now close to discovering the secret of the Incas’ recorded language!

Colourful knotted cords called Khipu have long been known to be an Inca abacus or way of noting numbers. Recent research now shows that these tied strands may also be a way of recording myths, songs, battles and other information, such as taxes and tributes. Social scientists are narrowing down on the ‘Rosetta Stone’ to cracking the knotty code.

The majority of khipus that have survived to this day consist of a thin primary cord with multiple pendant cords hanging from them. It was the anthropologist Leland Locke that first noticed in the 1920s that the knots formed abacus-like beads whose height on the string denoted different numerical units.

Gary Urton, an anthropologist at Harvard, has a database of nearly one thousand khipus and has devoted twenty-five years to developing and digitising his collection. By 2012, Urton had come up with the hypothesis that the tying direction of the knots and the string colours and materials corresponded to the social statuses and names of people paying tribute. It was only in 2016, that Urton came across his Rosetta Stone, a Spanish census document recording tributes from a village called Recuay in Santa Valley, Peru. This document’s subject and date corresponded exactly to the discovery location and date of six of Urton’s khipus.

It was Sabine Hyland, of the University of St Andrews, after studying the khipus of San Juan de Collata that realised that the knots might be a syllabic writing system. Urton expanding on the findings of Hyland now believes the knots to be semasiographic – with knots acting as information signposts for an empire with multiple ethnicities and languages.

Linguistics and History applicants might like to further investigate the development of language in the Inca culture in preparation for their interviews.

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