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Twisted textile cords may contain clues to Inca messages

An anthropologist is unraveling a writing system in villagers’ artifacts from the 1700s

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9:00am, May 8, 2017
bundle of animal-hair cords

MESSAGE CORD  A bundle of animal hairs signals the beginning of a sequence of twisted and knotted cords on an 18th century khipu from a Central Andean village. A bright red tuft of deer hair is followed by a woven cone of hairs from different animals mixed with metallic fibers. New research suggests this and another khipu contain a type of writing.

Animal-hair cords dating to the late 1700s contain a writing system that might generate insights into how the Inca communicated, a new study suggests.

Researchers have long wondered whether some twisted and knotted cords from the Inca Empire, which ran from 1400 to 1532, represent a kind of writing about events and people. Many scholars suspect that these textile artifacts, known as khipus, mainly recorded decimal numbers in an accounting system. Yet Spanish colonial documents say that some Inca khipus contained messages that runners carried to various destinations. 

Now a new twist in this knotty mystery comes from two late 18th century khipus stored in a wooden box at San Juan de Collata, a Peruvian village located high in the Andes Mountains. A total of 95 cord combinations of different colors, animal fibers and ply directions, identified among hundreds of hanging cords on these khipus, signify specific syllables, reports Sabine Hyland. Hyland, a social

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