January 25, 2015
Lecture by Dr. Jeffrey C. Splitstoser on "Unwrapping Khipu History: Using Structural Analysis to Trace the Possible Paracas Roots of Inka Khipus"

Some pictures
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Prior to contact with the Old World, the peoples of the New World—other than the Mayas and to some degree the Aztecs—did not write, at least not in the way Westerners think of writing using signs to represent the sounds of speech. The Inkas, who ruled much of South America at the time of conquest, did not write, but they had khipus, knotted-string devices, that served as their primary recordkeeping tool. The Inkas ran an empire using khipus. Unfortunately, no Spaniard ever learned how to read a khipu, so there is no khipu “Rosetta Stone,” so to speak, and we probably will never know for certain how to read them.

What we know is this: (1) the type of knot, number of knots, and placement of knots along the cord provided quantitative information; and (2) attributes of the knots (e.g., direction) and cords (e.g., color, material, and final twist direction) provided qualitative information about what which was being recorded, whether it be information about crop yields, irrigation and canal maintenance, the number of llamas in the royal herds (by color and fleece), or the inter-workings of the calendar. Some Spanish chroniclers maintained that khipu could even be used to record poems and personal histories.

Recent work has shown that khipus have a long history that might have begun as early as Late Paracas times (ca. 500-200 BC). Excavations at the Paracas site of Cerrillos in the Ica Valley of Peru revealed khipu-like objects made ca. 350-300 BC that are providing insights into the nature and development of khipu. This talk will describe the development of khipus from their possible beginnings as wrapped objects that conveyed information via complex multi-colored wrapped-band patterns to their use by the Wari, ancient Peru’s earliest empire, who combined wrapping and knotting in khipus to encode and transmit complex information, and to Inka, whose khipus were primarily knotted but occasionally incorporated wrapping. Perhaps by looking at the structural development of khipus, we will gain insight into the workings of these remarkable Prehispanic documents.

Dr. Jeffrey C. Splitstoser is an Assistant Research Professor of Anthropology at George Washington University. His current field research is at the site of El Castillo de Huarmey, studying textiles and khipus recently excavated from the tombs of three Wari queens (ca. AD 700-1000), whose remains were published in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Splitstoser is finishing work as textile specialist for the Huaca Prieta Archaeological Project, directed by Dr. Tom Dillehay, where Splitstoser studied 6,200 year old cotton textiles, some colored blue and representing the earliest known use of indigo dye in the world. Splitstoser is also a research associate of the Institute of Andean Studies, Berkeley; the Vice President of the Boundary End Archaeology Research Center in Barnardsville, North Carolina; and the editor (with Dr. David Stuart) of its peer-reviewed journal, Ancient America. He also provides consultation on Andean textiles for the National Museum of the American Indian. Splitstoser was a Junior Fellow at the Dumbarton Oaks (2005-2006), and he is a Cosmos Club scholar. Splitstoser received his Masters degree (1999) and Ph.D. (2009) in anthropology from The Catholic University of America, Washington, D. C. The subject of his dissertation was the textiles of Cerrillos, Ica Valley, Peru.

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