Monday, July 18, 2011

Were the Inca literate?

There is a fascinating article on Slate about the quest to decode Incan khipus, knotted cords which were used to record numbers, and which may have also been used to record written information as well. According to the article, the financial record-keepers of the Inca seemed to out-perform Spanish accountants when their figures were compared in 16th-century lawsuits. Apparently, the Spanish eventually put the kibosh on the use of khipus, in characteristic fashion:
The Spaniards' institutional response to this singular accounting system, originally benign, shifted in 1583, when Peru's nascent Roman Catholic church decreed that khipus were the devil's work and ordered the destruction of every khipu in the former Inca empire. (This was the heyday of the Spanish Inquisition, and the church was making a major push to convert natives from their pantheistic state religion.)
What can one say? The brutal destruction of cultures is as depressing as it is common in history. One only hopes that the surviving khipus will one day be decoded.
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