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Press Release 05-137
Inka Textile Devices Served as Business Ledgers

Computer analysis reveals numerical and other patterns in knotted objects

Slide show of khipu artifacts
Video available View video

See examples of the khipus from the Harvard collection.
Credit and Larger Version

August 11, 2005

While most ancient cultures recorded civil matters and business transactions by inscribing characters on 2-dimensional sheets, new evidence shows Peru's original inhabitants used a 3-dimensional system of knotted strings to keep track of things.

In the Aug. 12 edition of the journal Science, Harvard University anthropologist Gary Urton and database developer Carrie Brezine say their computer analysis of 21 of the knotted objects, known as "khipu," revealed distinct patterns that help confirm the textile devices were used for record keeping and to communicate affairs of state throughout the sprawling empire of the Inka--a spelling Urton prefers because it is closer to the native Peruvian language.

Seven of the objects appeared to contain cumulative numerical data.

Deciphering the khipu information also helps explain how the vast Inka bureaucracy, which ruled the Andes from 1425 to 1532, stayed so organized without ever developing a system of 2-dimensional writing.

According to Urton, khipu were used "to record the information deemed most important to the state, which often included accounting and other data related to censuses, finance and the military." In this regard, he said, "the discovery that khipu were used as ledger books reveals a new consonance between the Inka and other ancient cultures."

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation's Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences program, the Dumbarton Oaks Foundation, Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Read the Harvard news release.

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Steve Bradt, Harvard University, (617) 496-8070, steve_bradt@harvard.edu

Related Websites
Harvard Khipu Web Site: http://khipukamayuq.fas.harvard.edu/
NSF Award for Khipu Database: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward.do?AwardNumber=0408324
NSF Award to Decipher the Khipu: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward.do?AwardNumber=0228038

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2015, its budget is $7.3 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 48,000 competitive proposals for funding, and makes about 11,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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Knotted "khipus" probably served as ledgers for Inka building projects like Machu Picchu.
Knotted "khipus" probably served as ledgers for Inka building projects like Machu Picchu.
Credit and Larger Version



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