Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Staying in touch with old loves

Via Matt Jones comes the excellent, if infrequently updated, Heckler & Coch. Now I admit I was successfully seduced by this blog for one simple reason: I used to live Inka ethnohistory, archaeology, textiles and architecture, and Andrew recently posted a bunch of links on Inka khipu. On what?

Cracking the Khipu Code: The Inca have often been described as the only major Bronze Age civilization without a written language. In recent years, however, researchers have increasingly come to doubt this conclusion. Many now think that although khipu probably began as accounting tools, they had evolved into a writing system--a kind of three-dimensional binary code, unlike any other on Earth--by the time the Spanish arrived ... Yet the quest to understand khipu faces a serious obstacle: No one can read them.

All known writing systems used for ordinary communication employ instruments to paint or inscribe on flat surfaces. Khipu, by contrast, are three-dimensional arrays of knots. They consist of a primary cord, usually 0.5 to 0.7 centimeters in diameter, to which are tied thinner "pendant" strings--typically more than 100 and on occasion as many as 1500. The pendant strings, which sometimes have subsidiary strings attached, bear clusters of knots.

[In 1923] Locke showed that the numerical khipu were hierarchical, decimal arrays, with the knots used to record 1's on the lowest level of each string. Other knots were tied on successively higher levels in a decimal "place value" system to represent 10s, 100s, 1000s, and so on. "The mystery has been dispelled," exulted archaeologist Charles W. Mead after Locke's discovery. "We now know the quipu for just what it was in prehistoric times ... simply an instrument for recording numbers."

But in 1997, William J. Conklin, a research associate at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., suggested that knots were only part of the khipu system. "When I started looking at khipu," says Conklin, perhaps the first textile specialist to investigate them, "I saw this complex spinning and plying and color-coding, in which every thread was made in a complex way. I realized that 90% of the information was put into the string before the knot was made."

Taking off from this insight, [Gary] Urton proposes that khipu makers made use of the nature of spinning and weaving by assigning values to a series of binary choices, including the type of material (cotton or wool), the spin and ply direction of the string (which he describes as "S" or "Z" after the "slant" of the threads), the direction (recto or verso) of the knot attaching the pendant string to the primary, and the direction of slant of the main axis of each knot itself (S or Z). As a result, he says, each knot is a "seven-bit binary array," although the term is inexact because khipu had at least 24 possible string colors. Each array encoded one of 26 x 24 potential "information units"--a total of 1536, somewhat more than the estimated 1000 to 1500 Sumerian cuneiform signs and more than twice the approximately 600 to 800 Egyptian and Maya hieroglyphic symbols. In Urton's view, the khipu not only were a form of writing, but "like the coding systems used in present-day computer language, [they were] structured primarily as a binary code."

If Urton is right, khipu were unique. They were the world's sole intrinsically three- dimensional "written" documents (Braille is a translation of writing on paper) and the only ones to use a binary system for ordinary communication. In addition, they may have been among the few examples of "semasiographic" writing: texts that, like mathematical or dance notation but unlike written English, Chinese, and Maya, are not representations of spoken language. "A system of symbols does not have to replicate speech to communicate narrative," explains Catherine Julien, a historian of Andean cultures at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

Knotted string communication, however anomalous to Euro-American eyes, has deep roots in Andean culture. Khipu were but one aspect of what Heather Lechtman, an archaeologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology, describes as "a technological environment in which people solved basic engineering problems through the manipulation of fibers." In Andean cultures, Lechtman says, textiles--ranging from elaborately patterned bags and tunics to missile-hurling slings and suspension bridges--were "how people both communicated messages of all sorts and created tools." Similarly, Urton explains, binary oppositions were a hallmark of the region's peoples, who lived in societies "typified to an extraordinary degree by dual organization," from the division of town populations into "upper" and "lower" moieties to the arrangement of poetry into dyadic units. In this environment, he says, "khipu would be familiar."

But this grander view of khipu as written narrative also has its critics. "Due to cultural evolutionary theory, people have decided that cultures are not really any good unless they have writing," says Patricia J. Lyon of the Institute of Andean Studies in Berkeley, California. "People feel this great need to pump up the Inca by indicating that the khipu were writing." Agreeing with the 17th century Jesuit chronicler Bernabé Cobo, Lyon believes that khipu "were mnemonic devices, no matter what you dream up."

Even some of Urton's supporters are cautious about his interpretation. Conklin, for instance, agrees that the khipu were charged with meaning, but he worries that the analogy to computer language may not fit. "The Andean concept of duality is different than ours," he says. Whereas each 1 or 0 in a binary display is completely independent, the Andean dualities "are like the ebb and flow of a tide: opposing, interacting aspects of a single phenomenon." In his view, understanding khipu will require finding "a way other than our independent zero and one to express Andean dualism." Still, he says, Urton's work "is the first attempt to push khipu forward since Leland Locke."


It's the last paragraph that really caught my eye. A chapter of my MA thesis looked at Native Andean concepts of space and time in terms of what I would now articulate as FLOW. Different from binary. Interesting. For four years I've told myself I should write a paper about Quechua & Aymara notions of space-time (of performance, myth and dialectics) and what this has to do with understanding computing ...

(I also keep a running list of new and favourite books on the Inka.)

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