Strings, knots may tell story of an empire, prof. says

Friday, September 30, 2005

Harvard Professor Gary Urton explained how modern technology helped him make a breakthrough in his study of 15th century Incan string records at Thursday’s annual Jane Dwyer Memorial Lecture.

Urton, a member of Harvard’s Department of Anthropology, has begun to solve the mystery surrounding the Incan artifacts known as “khipu,” or “knots” in the Incan language of Quechua. These khipu, which look like long strings with regularly spaced knots, were the only known form of nonverbal communication in an Incan culture that lacked a written language.

Urton spoke about his findings to an audience of mostly faculty and a few graduate students who filled about half of Salomon 001. The lecture was sponsored by Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

After providing a brief background about the culture and society of the Incan Empire, Urton described his quest to unlock the secrets of the khipu. In 2002, he and Harvard graduate student Carrie Brezine started a computer database to record information about all existing khipu. Of the 600 to 700 khipu known to exist today, Urton and Brezine have documented around 300, noting such details as size, number of strings, color of string, frequency and location of knots and age.

Just last year, the computer program, using an advanced network of algorithms based on the binary code the Incans were thought to have used, began finding patterns among the different khipu. The results were exciting news for anthropologists, who have sought to decipher the messages for 450 years. Urton’s work proved that the khipu were connected to each other in some way.

“These khipu are talking to each other,” Urton said. “They’re sending messages from one to the other.”

However, Urton stressed that though this discovery will help anthropologists in their quest to understand khipu, there is still a lot of work to be done. He is now sure that the khipu are related to each other, but he does not know what they say.

“We don’t have what amounts to the Rosetta Khipu,” Urton said, referring to the ancient stone that allowed anthropologists to understand Egyptian hieroglyphics for the first time.

Krysta Ryzewski GS, a fourth-year graduate student working toward a Ph.D. in archaeology, said she had been expecting more from Urton’s findings.

“I’m surprised to see they haven’t broken the code yet,” she said after the lecture. “It seems like a mathematician might provide insight now, more than another archaeologist could.”

Kaitlin Deslatte, a graduate student of historical archaeology at University of Massachusetts – Boston, agreed that the lecture seemed incomplete.

“It’s still ambiguous. They have these theories, but there’s still no concrete evidence about what they mean. A lot of work still needs to be done,” she said.

Urton made it clear that the database was not the culmination, but the starting point of his study of khipu. In the coming years, he hopes to answer questions about how information was encoded in the khipu, what purpose khipu served in the Incan Empire and whether khipu merely expressed quantities or expressed qualitative ideas as well.

Until he finds an answer, students and enthusiasts of archaeology and anthropology can do nothing but wait.

“It’s only a matter of time before (Urton’s) database and research will crack the khipu code,” Ryzewski said.