- Carol Olona
- HayFestivalArequipa @ BBCMundo
It was in a residence for students at Harvard University when the mathematician Manuel Medrano (Los Angeles, 1996) had his “Rosetta moment” at just 19 years old.
It is how the academic defines the small discoveries, which when accumulated, allow us to advance in the world of knowledge.
In the same way that Jean-Francois Champollion he managed to decipher the meaning of the hieroglyphs in 1822 in part thanks to all the research that preceded him.
In his case, Medrano had found a correspondence of non-numerical information between 6 ancient quipus (“knot” in Quechua) and a 17th century Spanish census document that had previously been identified as possible paired sources.
One more small step to decipher these complex artifacts composed of ropes, knots and colors used to record numerical and narrative information and invented by the powerful Wari culture, around 950 AD
Currently there 1.386 copies distributed all over the world, only 1% of those who are believed to have existed.
Medrano is now at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, studying the so-called “paper quipus”, transcripts of quipus that, after the conquest, Andean litigants introduced as evidence in legal proceedings.
Another of his contributions is “Quipus. A thousand years of history knotted in the Andes and its digital future”, a very interesting book that the author hopes will awaken the public’s curiosity about this “great enigma of humanity.”
The American researcher spoke with BBC Mundo in the framework of the Hay Festival Arequipa.
Where does that passion for the study of quipus come from in a mathematician?
I was fascinated by the Ancient World when, at the age of 8, I visited an exhibition on Tutankhamun’s funeral remains in Los Angeles.
I knew I wanted to develop my interest in archeology when I got to Harvard, where I discovered the Incas and the problem of decoding the quipus. I graduated in Applied Mathematics because I was interested in quantitative techniques for the study of History.
But it does not only come from an academic concern, there is also a personal motivation.
My maternal grandfather, Antonio Flores, and his wife, Eva, immigrated to Sacramento, California. Antonio was a day laborer and did not know how to read or write and I thought about the daily impact that something like this could have in the United States.
I mean that although my own family history has nothing to do with quipus, it made me see the power that the perception of illiteracy can have in multicultural contexts.
For historical reasons there has been a link between the pre-Hispanic Andes and illiteracy.
Ángel Rama wrote in “The literate city” that graphic writing had an important power in the “New World” since it became an aptitude to participate in civic life.
The idea that the ability to read and write allowed citizens to come to power has a significant legacy in writing and in the centuries after the conquest.
It has also affected our own interpretation of whether quipus can fulfill the functions of writing or whether they are complex or not, for example.
And during the conquest, can it be said that the Spanish exploited that vision of the Incas as illiterate for the purpose of domination?
That was not necessarily the spearhead, although there was a cultural bias that defined the ability to read and write only in a two-dimensional way, that is, on paper and ink.
So, many saw the Incas as illiterate because the quipus did not coincide with what they understood as writing. But this is just one of the biases and worldviews that underlies the conquest of America.
What made this combination of twine, knot, and color such a shape viable communication?
It was an ideal tool for the desert and rainy environment of the Andes, and it was a perfect implement for transmitting information over thousands of kilometers.
It is exciting to come across a three-dimensional form of enrollment, something that challenges our education. When we hear the word “write” we think in two dimensions, but we must consider the possibility that another civilization did not do so.
Can you consider then what was it a form of writing?
It is a debate, but I would say that they did fulfill many of the same functions of writing before and after the conquest. We know of some communities in the central highlands of Peru that, decades after the introduction of graphic writing, continued to wear quipus.
The quipu must be considered as a complex tool in each period of its active use, not only in the 130 years of the Inca Empire. In fact, that period represents less than 15% of its use.
Beyond accounting, in what others contexts were used?
When describing a millennium of the quipu one of the myths that I wanted to break is that they are the records of some elites and that they suffered a quick death after the Spanish conquest.
In fact, an example from the 18th century is the use of the quipus to plan an uprising against colonial administrators before independence.
I imagine also against the Church.
We know that when the Catholic Church entered the quipu was imposed for religious purposes, such as rosaries or for confession.
But at the same time we have examples such as that of a community in which the priest of a church was surprised because the parishioners of his parish came to confession with a standardized quipu, that is to say, the father heard the same confession over and over again. of the community members.
So the quipus could be used at the same time as an instrument of domination and of subversion. And although the shape of the quipus in each case is not yet clear, it is important to condense and describe the spirit that underlies.
But, were the Spanish never interested in learning to decipher them?
So far we do not have among the known sources of the Spanish chroniclers one that provides us with the key to the universal interpretation of the Inca quipu.
However, there is a chance that one day we will find documents that include some of those details. Let’s hope that day I arrived!
¿Y pWhy is it essential that we decipher the quipus?
If we want to write a history of the pre-Hispanic world told by that world, we need to have the full range of sources available and one of those first-hand sources is the quipus.
In addition, it would allow us to change the conceptualization of the largest empire in the “New World” and face one of the shared challenges of our humanity.
We have deciphered the primary sources of almost all the major ancient civilizations and the quipus represent one of the last that we remain undecoded.
Why is it that we have not achieved it yet?
There are several reasons, but it depends on who you ask. Archaeologists may tell you that we do not have enough specimens; the specialists in colonial literature that we do not have enough writings of the period and the historians that we need more archival sources.
But they all agree that the font set is incomplete. To address this partial record we need to integrate the methods of many complementary disciplines.
For example, computer techniques can help us in the absence of an archaeological record, that is, with statistics we can verify the hypotheses that we draw from a few archaeological specimens.
Tell me more about your visionthe future.
We are digitizing the quipus and that allows us to preserve it, that is, to have a permanent record of these specimens in their original state and the possibility of analysis in this shared deciphering effort.
The digital quipu and its cataloging represents for me one of the ways to start making large-scale or multi-level comparisons, and that is why I have implemented some of the techniques of the data science to the examination of the surviving specimens.
When we can form groups or families of quipus it will be a powerful guide for the interpretation of other elements within those families and thus we can talk about the meaning of specific elements within the demographic, calendrical or tributary quipus.
At the moment we have not identified enough specimens for us to be sure that they fulfilled those specific functions, but artificial intelligence – and in particular machine learning – can form some of those preliminary groupings that we can then manually check.
It is one of the most exciting and promising approaches of the future.
What do the quipus tell us about Peru today?
We are facing one of the most sophisticated and complex technologies in the history of humanity that had its peak in the Andes.
It tells us that Peru or the Andean world is a place of “historical genuineness” and of a such deep complexity that with all the technology we have we have not been able to complete the decipherment.
It is exciting and we are indebted to all the researchers who have preceded us in this challenge.
This article is part of the digital version of the Hay Festival Arequipa, a meeting of writers and thinkers that takes place in that Peruvian city between November 1 and 7.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.