echo January 18, 2018 7:45 AM

This story reveals an intriguing use of “collect it all” and comparing databases and different fields of knowledge. I suppose it would be funny if these knot codes weren’t the repository of mysterious knowledge but the equivalaent of Tesco clubcards.

There has also been progress on discovering what disease wiped out the Aztecs. Dodgy eggs from Tescos?

Me January 18, 2018 9:10 AM

Am I the only one that hates it when they say that the Incas didn’t invent a system of writing, and then talk about their system of writing (with knotted string)?

MatthiasU January 18, 2018 10:28 AM

“Harvard student helps crack mystery of Inca code” is clickbait, implying that there is some crack in “the code”. Well, there isn’t. He infers that string colors infer the names of … well … the person the knot string tells a story about? the person who knotted the string?

Maybe the khipu are just a memory aid and thus we’d need to go to the person who knotted it if we want to read the details – implying that we’re unlikely to ever discover their meaning.

Ciro Larrazabal January 18, 2018 10:46 AM

I have a bitter taste with this article, I come from Bolivia, Peruvians and Bolivians share a lot of this hopes to “crack” the code… but to crack the code and to figure out one of the elements is kind of different. It is nice to see that the color was used for “subjects” but sadly that was already know (note the reference that is was know to be used for tally and census) where the position and number seems to be the quantity codification.
A narrative was always speculated to exist because there is a lot that it is not decoded…
So I am happy for this … but is still far from cracked (most of the ppl that i met, already think that is just hope of find something that it doesn’t exist).
As is in the article, if this was the only way to transmit knowledge … its seems fair that it should be more to crack, but if there was another that we didn’t discover … the biggest problem was that the spaniard really kill all the elite of the inca imperium (btw it was a hierarchical civilization … with well established “classes”, so if you eliminated the cult one … there was no one to replace)

Peter S. Shenkin January 18, 2018 11:00 AM

It is not wise to infer the claims of a researcher based upon what some headline writer announces.

The people involved do not make a claim that the code has been “cracked.” They just claim a bit of progress. See the title of their journal article, printed in the link.

echo January 18, 2018 11:29 AM

I read the wiki on Quipu and a 2007 Wired article. Notable topics covered include cryptology and anthropology, and a broader description of quipu with pictures. I’m not completely convinved rpevious approaches are anything new when they declare this writing system as the only 3D writing system and examine it via treating it as a network as books with indexes at a meta level might be considered conceptually similar but this may just be me.

Another point which struck me is its brevity (or brutality as some suggest) might be an artifact of least energy? Contrast this writing with contemparary cultural art and it’s not unlike comparing cuniform writing with a Monet so maybe assumptions of primitivity may a wholly proper interpretation. I was also struck with how this article described how such little progress was such a breakthrough. This made me reflect that stone age people were not so stupid and it was a long long accumulation of knowledge which makes us so relatively clever today yet with similar achingly slow progress on wholly new areas like fusion power.

justina colmena January 18, 2018 12:16 PM

@Mr. Verhart

Please do not link to sites that reject privacy rights.

Second in support of that motion.

“Second” is not a verb.

Hippy One January 18, 2018 12:27 PM

“We think of language as either spoken or written down,” Medrano said. “But the khipu really takes that and breaks that boundary and makes language something that can be felt, something that can be touched, and something that can be handled.”

There are two knotty problems with this statement. The first is that it assumes what it seeks to prove. We don’t know if the knots are an actual language, since we haven’t broke the code we don’t know what they are. A record of a census does not by itself constitute a language. The second problem is: does he really mean to suggest that a book can’t be felt? A pen can’t be felt? He seems to be making a leap to paint this as something profoundly unique. It is unique but not like that. If picking up a book does not constitute touching language than feeling knots sure doesn’t.

echo January 18, 2018 12:27 PM

Sorry but I guard my right of self-determination jealously. If you wish to discuss an issue this is fine but I don’t respond to orders or mobbing. If you wish a policy change then please take up with Bruce. thank you.

Wombat January 18, 2018 12:43 PM

@Mr. Verhart

I agree that sites with that sort of filtering should not be rewarded with traffic. However I see that “Reader View” still brings up the content just fine.

Clive Robinson January 18, 2018 4:33 PM

Whilst the colours certainly need light to see them, the knots can be read in the dark. Which would be an advantage in many societies that live inside windowless rooms and passages.

But I would say that the sample size for the colour / name deduction is way to small for any kind of confidence.

justina colmena January 18, 2018 5:05 PM

@Nickie, Sofa

OED says “second” is a verb

Oh, puh-leeze. Don’t misuse Robert’s Rules of Order to murder the English language.

Anura January 18, 2018 5:40 PM

@justina colmena

Words mean whatever people accept them to mean. Language is constantly changing, and in a thousand years the English language spoken today will be barely recognizable.

That said, the English language deserves to die. At the very least, the ghonetics should be made consistent.

echo January 18, 2018 7:09 PM

Speaking of how senses affect writing systems an article on language and smell was published today. One question I had is what did the Incas talk about? Perhaps not smell but how much would different interests affect language and attempts to decipher their writing?

Research exploring differences between the languages used by the indigenous peoples showed they used them as a window into their sensory worlds.

Frances January 19, 2018 12:05 AM

There is Second, as in I second a motion.
And there is Second, as in He was seconded to a different department for the duration of the emergency, or whatever. Pronounced with the emphasis
on the second syllable.
Both are verbs. And they don’t murder the English language.

Clive Robinson January 19, 2018 4:36 AM

@ echo,

One question I had is what did the Incas talk about?

We will probably never know what the majority talked about. Study of “written” records from other cultures indicates the process of making a record was almost always very very Labour intensive thus expensive. Thus the society had to have sufficient excess wealth to alow for paying of such labours. In most cases such societies fell, thus few written records made it through to subsequent societies.

Which ment that most records are those of “Kings and Priests” provided both the content and the record, often “cast in stone”. Thus proclaim greatness law and it’s processes/judgments.

As less expensive and faster record making processes became available in societies that did not fall as quickly (mainly due to trade”. The documents became financial/business/property related in nature. It’s only when duplication of records becomes easy that the thoughts of the common man start getting committed to wriyten records, such as plays, stories and recaling of earlier times.

If you think about it it’s less than a century ago that typewriters became sufficiently inexpensive to make the production of clear records available to those of the middle classes. Which needed a real industrial base with sufficient “over capacity” to allow industrial mass production. Likewise it’s only in the last third of a century that computers –which require not just industry but advanced science as well,– to become available to the majority who want to commit their day to day thoughts to storage.

The problem now is the vast amounts of data generated. As rather than write the majority prefer the push of a smartphone button to make records via sound and vision. But worse for historians such records are basically usless as they lack context and timeline, and rapidly become inaccessable due to rapidly changing data storage formats involving compression, thus rapid bit loss issues.

But it’s actually worse where content is essentially vacuous, think what historians in a thousand years time will make of dancing hamster cartoons and Cute Kitty video clips and the mostly junk that fills the servers of Alphabet Facebook etc we call “social networking”. Which in effect is replacing alcohol and tobacco as “the drugs of the masses”. Apart from the exploitive aspects the worth is so little that it might well never have been recorded because it is simultaniously both to little –to be usefull– and to much –to be studied–.

Oh and the exploitation aspect of electronic communications makes the records made of even less use not just historically but for other uses. Whilst it does not appear so at first glance, people are becoming more cautious the “Chilling Effect” is starting to profuse it’s way through society who are starting to see the harms that befall others less wise or prescient. The “Lets Encrypt Everything” response to State and Corporate “Lets Collect Everything” is happening, people are being more cautious in what they do, say and show via electronic communications.

Whilst the likes of “whistle blowers” got sufficient of society over the initial inertia. It’s the likes of the FBI’s Louis “Screech” Freeh with his “Secret briefing trips to Europe etc”, and those who followed him that “have kept the snowball rolling and growing”. They have “Cried Wolf” so often about “Going Dark” to get around what they no doubt views as a “to liberal” constitutional[1] protections of the individual, that they have ended up “cooking their own goose”. That once was “The goose that laid the golden eggs” of intel in plain text. It was their laziness and greed that has resulted in more and more people rapidly adding the Secret ‘making’ Sauce of encryption via easy use apps on Smart Devices. Thus for now the technology pendulum is swinging away from their greedy grasping hands and maws.

So within a relatively short time, either encryption will render what is important unseen to their mostly illegal eavesdropping[2], or the tyranny of totalitarianism of the Police State will cause the empire to fall and fragment as trust ceases to keep society together in a cohesive way.

As others have noted the societies that appear the happiest are those where trust is both informal and strong, making society not just accepting but open. Importantly with neither Politics or Religion featuring strongly in their lives to break down and rend asunder the trust and openness.

[1] A view that is common in what many would regard as as an “Overly Conservative Catholic Republican” fraction of the population that have very undesirable “Paternalistic Views” approaching those of most rabidly totalitarian. Who wrap themselves in flags and ideologies (think of those of the French Revolution, Communism etc etc) and believe they know better than the majority “What is good for them” which in reality is the worse than slavery serfdom. Those of a type George Orwell depicted in both 1984 and Animal Farm.

[2] I’m of the opinion that “secret legislation and argument” are not actually lawfull in a reasonable society. Thus the US Patriot Act and EO’s are not legal, thus anything they cover is likewise not legal. Justice requires that you be aware that you are doing wrong –mens rea–, before you are actually committing a crime. Thus you have to be aware of the legislation, or it must transgress what the “reasonable man” would consider societies current mores.

M January 19, 2018 7:22 AM

@justina “Second” has been a verb since before Robert’s rules and indeed before the United States. It’s derived from French seconder, in turn from Latin secundare – both verbs – and has been used at least since the 16th century

echo January 19, 2018 10:10 AM

Sorry. One thing I noticed (and which was the thing bugging me) was about quipus buried with people. What would these contain and would the quantity of quipu in a bundle reflect their age? Would this be a record of achievements kept during their lives? Would those achievements relate to titles or awards or property, or something else? Would their personal wealth be reflected in the quantity of record keeping? The Wired article I read didn’t contain enough samples to get an idea and online databases of quipu might lack this extra data.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.