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Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records.

Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records. By Gary Urton. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. Pp. 202. $19.95.)

Outsiders have long been fascinated by the sets of knotted strings, called quipu or khipu, which the Incas used to convey information. Despite a wealth of colonial-period Spanish texts describing the ways in which the khipu were used, the strings remain a puzzle to this day. Scholars disagree about what kinds of information might have been conveyed by these devices and also about how they might have been "read." Many scholars believe that the khipu were used solely for accounting purposes--no minor function given that the Incas demanded tribute from all corners of a far-flung empire. Others believe that the khipu were individualized mnemonic tools without conventional meaning that served to jar the memories of those who created them. Still others posit that the knotted cords contain more narrative information.

Noted Andean scholar Gary Urton has presented a new way to look at the khipu and the kinds of information they contain in this newest work on the subject. Urton makes an analogy between eight-bit binary computer code and the system of information registry encoded into the knotted cords of the Andes. He theorizes that there were seven operations, or stages, of binary decision-making involved in fabricating each khipu knot: first, a choice was made concerning the material to be used in construction. Next, the cotton or camelid fibers were spun and plied (in a combination of directions) before being dyed. The resulting strings were attached (recto or verso) to what scholars refer to as the primary cord; in the last step, the strings were knotted in a variety of ways. Twenty-four possible colors expanded the system to contain 1,536 units of information.

As an artist, this reviewer appreciates the care with which Urton describes the processes involved in actually constructing a khipu. His description speaks of long hours of careful, direct observation.

Urton's theory is as carefully constructed. It is supported by ethnographic comparison and stresses the importance of dual organization in contemporary Andean cultures. He contends that linguistic patterns such as parallelism and social patterns such as ayllus (moieties) have roots in an earlier Andean cognitive landscape in which binary opposition prevailed. One might wonder how closely the Andean version of duality parallels our own and also how that duality is articulated with the concept of four quarters, or cardinal points, that is central to many cultures in the Americas.

Whether the author's theory proves correct is anyone's guess, although his examination of the relationship between computer code and the scripts encoded therein may prove to be a useful paradigm for uncovering the relationship between the information stored in the khipu and the means by which it was then retrieved and conveyed.

This book will be of interest to anyone who has ever wondered what exactly constitutes a writing system, to students of the past or present-day Andean world, and to khipu specialists. One wishes the author luck in finding a match between a colonial translation and an extant khipu, which would go far in finding a solution to this knotty problem.

Southeastern Louisiana University

Marianna Appel Kunow

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Author:Kunow, Marianna Appel
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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