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March 8, 2016 60 mins

Welcome to the Kingdom of the Inca, where hundreds of rope bridges connect an imperial highway system and fiber-armored soldiers wield woven slings against the enemies of the Emperor. In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Robert and Joe explore the khipu system of knotted, colored string that served as a physical notation system in lieu of written language.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:03):
Welcome to Stuff to Blow your Mind from housetop work
dot com. Hey, wasn't the stuff to blow your mind?
My name is Robert lamp and I'm Joe McCormick and Robert.
I've got a question I want you to think about.
Imagine somebody contracted you. I don't know if he's ever

built anything like a ship or a house or anything
like that, but imagine somebody contracted you to build something.
Let's say it's a bridge. They want you to build
a suspension bridge over a chasm. But there is a
little qualifier on this request. You can't use any written downwards,

so you can't read any words, and you can't write
any words. But I have to build a physical bridge. Yes,
So you need to get some workers together, and you
need to instruct them on how to build it. And
you've got to get all your material that you're gonna
need in order to build the bridge. And you've I mean,
you might have to research yourself how to build a

bridge if you've never done it before and you can't
use any written down words. Uh, yeah, that's gonna be challenging.
Like it it almost makes the only alternative to be
for my From myself to build it poorly without the
hate of anyone else, because I'm gonna have such a
difficulty in communicating with the workers. I'm gonna have a
but I'm gonna have all this difficulty just acquiring the plans,

acquiring the materials that I need. It's gonna be a
huge headache. Okay. Now imagine on top of that, I
also want you to organize a military campaign. So you're
going to need to get a whole bunch of people
together and go rate a village on the other side
of a river. You need to recruit your troops, you
need to get provisions for all of them. You to
make sure they have food and weapons and everything. Uh,

and you can't use any written down words. I think
this is really demanding a lot of me. I don't
think this. I don't see see my empire growing too
too much. I don't either. I And this is one
of the questions that we're gonna have to confront in
today's episode, because we're gonna be talking today about the Keepoo,
which are a fascinating record keeping and notation system from

the Inca Empire, and that still has many questions about
it today about to what extent it represents different kinds
of information and what it can tell us about things
that may otherwise be lost to history. So I want
to sort of draw a picture in your brain to
start off with. You are holding a woven artifact between

your hands, and it's made out of hundreds of strings
or chords. Uh, and it's very old, and it looks
like it may have sort of succumbed to some I
don't know what you might call parasitism or predation on
cloth over time. It might have some fungus or some
insect larva in it or something like that. But it's
made out of these very old strings or chords. Uh.

It might be oven out of cotton, or it might
be woven out of wool from a South American camelid
like a llama or an alpaca. And it has one
thick backbone cord stretching horizontally at the top, sort of
like a clothes line. It might be about a quarter
inch thick, so sort of like the chords that you
would have in your electronics. And then down from that

backbone cord hang lots of other chords with different characteristics,
some have different colors, They have not tied all over them.
They might have subsidiary strings hanging off of the cords.
This is a key poo. And if anyone out there
has ever gone to an art museum and seeing some

examples of fiber art, particularly modern fiber art, with kind
of an archaic look to them, that's the kind of
sence you get looking at the key poo because it's
it's it's it's intricate looking, it's old looking. But you
also without coming in with some prior knowledge, it's very
difficult to understand what it's for. Yeah, So these keepu

are so fascinating and enigmatic that I think they have
inspired a lot of other designs and artists throughout the ages.
And so the word keep you comes from there. There
are a lot of spellings of it, we should note,
so if you're looking forward on the internet, you might
have to try different spellings. It's k h i pu
or q u pu some other variations, But basically it

comes from a Quetchua word, and quetchuas an Andean language
in South America, and the word means not And this
makes sense because, as I've said, in the strings, you'll
see lots of knots tied up and down the length
of the strings hanging off the top. So this is
a very rare artifact in the modern day. Only some
hundred some few hundred of them exist. We can talk

about the numbers in a bit, and the basic terminology
that we're gonna use in the episode today for your
reference is that this this backbone chord at the top
sort of the main chord, is the primary chord. The
ones that hang down from it with knots on them
are called the pin dant chords. And then some of
the pendant chords are going to have subsidiary chords hanging

off of them, and then there can be subsidiaries of
subsidiaries of subsidiaries, and these things can get very complicated
and huge over time. But the question, of course is
what does it do? Yeah, because looking looking at one
you might think, well, this is some sort of an
art mop or something. Right, what are all the knots for?

Why so many chords? Yeah, it looks like it could
be a garment, like you know, it could be like
a skirt. You might have a you know, grass skirt
or something like that. Or it could be yes, like
you say, a mop, a cleaning instrument of some kind
of some kind of tool. But what everyone now agrees
is that it was not these things. It might be
a tool in one sense, but it's an intellectual tool.

This collection of strings and chords with not stide in
them is a system of storing information, just like the
hard disc on your computer, or like a or like
a clay tablet or a paper document. It's for story
ring information that was useful to the Indian peoples who
used it. So it stores information, But what kind of information?

What does it say? Yeah, we're getting into the into
this area of pre written language recording of information. Yeah,
which is such a fascinating area because uh you you're
seeing the emergence of of of written language. Uh that
we're talking about notation physical notation of information here. Yeah,

we're so used to the way our graphical languages work.
I mean, I think that's the term we should use
graphical languages right, because we represent them by making essentially
drawings on paper or on another surface. You you you
leave markings on a flat surface to indicate letters that
we use as a phonetic system of communicating language. We

operate by Pictures correspond to sounds of words, and those
sounds of words correspond to ideas and we're so immersed
in this uh, in this system that I mean, it
informs the way we think about the world as well
as interact with it. So it's it is kind of
difficult for a modern view or a modern language user

to sort of strip some of that away, uh, to
strip our written system away and try to imagine a
world without it. Yeah. And I want to get to
the impact of physical writing systems on the mind towards
the end of this episode, but for now, I think
we should focus on the Keypoo itself and look at
what this artifact is, what we can learn about it,
and what the mysteries about it that remain are yea,

and indeed where it comes from, because understanding the Incan
civilization is also vital to to seeing like how did this,
how did this come to take place? Yeah? Absolutely, so
I think that's a great place to start. We should
give a very brief, very cursory overview of the Inca Empire.
Obviously we can't get into all the fascinating details about
this empire. It would take over the podcast and become

the whole thing. But but to start off with, the
Inca Empire was a civilization that occupied the Andes, the
Andean region and the mountains in the west of South
America in what is today Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina,
And in terms of sheer size, it was the single
greatest empire in all of the America's before the European invasion.

So the Incas had this vast, powerful, impressive empire stretching
all and down the west side of South America when
the Europeans arrived in the late fourteen hundreds early fifteen hundreds.
But according to the traditional understanding of the history of
this pre Columbian civilization, the Inca did not have traditional

written records. They didn't have a writing system, or they
certainly didn't have one of the kind that we can
understand as graphical writing system, like markings on a page,
And for a long time it was thought that they
didn't have any sort of writing system at all. And
because of the lack of no historical or written records

by the Incas themselves, a lot of the information that
we have about Inca culture comes directly from the Spanish
conquerors and colonists who came beginning with Francisco Pizzarro, who
colonized South America in the fifteen hundreds and eventually brought
the Inca Empire to an end. But we should we
should talk about a few cultural facts about the Incas.

Like one of the things to look at is what
their religion and mythology looked like. Yes, indeed, and they
had had a really, you know, fairly complex religious system.
It was centered on the worship of the Sun and
the guise of the ancestor god int but it also
entailed a host of other pre Inca belief systems as
well as a rich tradition of ceremonial magic, animism, dualism,

cults of the mummified dead. And hopefully that is something
that future episode of Stuff about your Mind will get to,
as we've had some mummy episodes the mummies of the
Andean civilization. This is fascinating. We should definitely come back
to that. Indeed, magical items, divination, as well as animal
and human sacrifice. Now that that god Inti, the ancestor god,

has depicted as a human face on a race blade disc,
it's an important god of crops in life, and most
of their major uh deities line up with what you
would expect from an agrarian society, you know, the gods
of rain, the gods of sun, etcetera. Okay, so the
emty the face on the disc that's sort of like
a face in the sun. You're saying, yeah, the sun
god essential to everything. Got to have one, right. But

then there's also a god by the name of Vera Coca,
which is the creator god of the Inca or at
least the Late Inca. And so the idea here is
that he created the sun and the moon on Lake Tittyicaca.
After his creation, he wanders the world as a bearded
robe man with a staffing the ways of yeat of
civilization to the people. So imagine sort of a uh,

you know, a South American gandolf. I'm thinking that's amazing.
So the creator god that comes to earth and wanders
his own creation as as a sort of itinerant. Yeah, yeah,
it's kind of like, uh, it reminds me a little
bit of of some of the later Dune novels. Oh yeah,
there you go. But but he But the other thing

is that this is a very ancient god and he
actually predated the Inca Empire. They didn't actually add him
to the pantheon until much later, possibly under the rule
of an emperor who took the name of the god
Vera Coca and died in fourty eight. So it's kind
of this interesting scenario we have where it's a pre
existing god, it doesn't factor into the early Inca system,

but then ends up becoming a dominant one later on. Yeah.
But of course when we talk about the Inca Empire there,
we're not just talking about the the ethnic group of
the Incas themselves, because that they went on to create
this vast ride that included many different regions of the
continent and many different people. So so they had a
vast system of social and political organization exactly. So yeah,

it's like any really of any kind of imperial religious system.
They're going to be these other older religions that are
playing into the popular belief system. Uh, They're gonna be
regional beliefs, they're gonna be new beliefs. Suddenly God's gods
that suddenly find a following with very important people. Uh
So yeah, it's it's it's a rich tapestry. Now, as

for their overall political organization, they established their capital in
Cuzco uh in Peru in the what is now Peru
and twelfth century, uh and they expanded via military conquest
in the early fifteenth century, and within a hundred years
they gained control of the Indian population of about twelve
million people total. Yeah, and I've read many sources talking

about the very hierarchical nature of the of the Incan
Empire like that there were very clearly defined systems of
who answered to who. Yeah, it's it's easy to to
take sort of a Western uh approached all this and
and view other civilizations and kind of imagine something kind

of simple and primitive. They they've got a pope and
a king and all that. Yeah, But but but this
is really it was a really rich system. And certainly
at the top it's it's headed by it by the emperor.
But underneath the emperor there's just a complete aristocratic bureaucracy,
and there's in in the military system that keeps a
firm commanding hand on everything. And the divisions here involve

the central government, quarter league governments of provincial governments, and
what they called decimal administrations and so and the priesthood
plays an important role in the structure as well as
does the military. And it all kind of just tightens
the grip on on most of the people in the
empire who are just farmers. Yeah. Now, as you mentioned earlier,

there were hundreds of years of the Incas sort of
expanding their their power and capabilities, but as the actual
official empire goes, it was fairly short lived, officially lasting
only from the early fourteen hundreds, I think the fourteen
thirties or so until the Spanish conquest beginning in the
fifteen and thirties, with the last Inco resistance being destroyed
by the Spanish in the fifteen seventies. However, despite that

short period, the Incas were incredibly productive in building this
powerful technological civilization. Yeah. And the same way that their
religion was sort of pieces of things that already worked.
So to their their empire that seems to be built
of technologies that were already more or less in place.
But then what they did with them, uh, in creating

these unified structure is pretty amazing. Yeah. I read definitely
one scholar talking about how the the the amazing technology
of the Inca was primarily an organizational or management based technology.
What was amazing about what they did was their ability
to to organize groups of people to achieve ends, whether
those ends are engineering or architectural or strategic social organizations

or civic organizations, that they were able to mobilize people
toward holes and get things done. Yeah, because they already
had You already had the skills out there. You already
had plenty of of successful farmers, that successful craftsmen. Uh.
And then they were able to utilize these uh to
create the infrastructure of empire. Yeah. But just a few
quick things to name about the Incan technological achievements. One

of course would be their their civic infrastructure, So the
cities and the roads they have that span diverse climates
and ecoregions and dealt with very difficult terrain throughout the Andies.
I mean, they're building a civilization up and down the
sides of unwelcoming mountains, you might say. But there's also
the Incan road system, and this passes through the high

Andes coastal desert, the lowland forest. It was complex and
use traffic management. And then there's this one fact that
often gets referenced because it's so interesting that they had
a they had a messenger system made of these messengers
known as chots keys. Have you read about these guys? Yes,
because they do tie in with our our core subject
here today. Yeah. Yeah, So these are lightning fact asked

running messengers, and they carried information across these empire spanning
road systems, and they would carry with them the subject
of what we're talking about today, Like you said, the
key boos, these these strings and chords that had knots
on them to carry information, and they would carry the
key boos with them, and they trade out with rested
runners at way points, and they would bring information about

state projects back to central administrative nodes like CUSCO. And
they could cover huge distances very quickly, and often cited
numbers that they could cover two forty kilometers a day
on foot and uh and and another thing I've read
is that they they boosted their high altitude sprinting power
by chewing coca leaves to increase endurance in dull pains

and hunger and thirst and that sort of focus. Of course,
the coca leaves being the precursor to cocaine. Uh And
even here you might say that this is a technological
innovation and the use of newo tropics or performance enhancing drugs.
Oh yeah. And of course even to this day you
can it it's sometimes recommended to have the Coca Tee
if you're trying to adapt to high altitude uh situations

in South America. Yeah. But of course on top of
all that, they had irrigation systems, calculations used for engineering
that the Incans had this interesting stone device called a
yu panna, which is from what I've read, it's similar
to an avocus. It was like a stone device they
used for doing calculations. Also, one of the most impressive
and interesting things to me is their bridges. They're just amazing. Yeah,

they're They're bridges are really fascinating. And this this is
something I think I covered for the first time when
I was working on how bridges work for How Stuff
Works dot com um. The Incan's built the earliest known
suspension build bridges in the world out of twisted grass. Essentially,
we're talking about fiber arts here. And this is where
I get kind of excited thinking about them, because you

think of this this culture where again they're building the
empire out of the existing tools. What are we good at?
What can what are what are we great at? One
of the things they're great at is crafting things out
of fiber, out of string, out of rope and twine. Yeah,
I didn't even think about this connection until now. But
we're seeing this notation system that we're focusing on today
made out of textiles. We're seeing major infrastructure like bridges

made out of weaving. Uh. It's it's a sort of
weaving based techno culture. Yeah, it's kind of like to
come back to that question you ask me at the
beginning of the episode, you know, how would I do
all these things? How would I build my empire if
I couldn't use written language? Like the follow up question
would might have to be what what are you good at?
What is the what? What is your what is your

your primary skill that we could build all of this
or more than that, what is what are lots of
people good at? You know, what are what are the
skills that we can get lots of people doing for
the empire without having to teach them how to do it. Yeah.
So these bridges in question here, they were first discovered
when Spanish conquistadors made their way into Buru in the
year fifteen thirty two. Uh, And they discovered this this

wonderful highway system that we've already mentioned. But as you mentioned,
that highway system has to span some pretty treacherous areas,
including some some some deep mountain gorges uh. And that's
where they discovered these, um the suspension bridges, achieving spans
in some places of more than a hundred and fifty
feet or or forty six meters uh. In Europe, on

the other hand, they wouldn't see it. Europe wouldn't see
its first suspension bridge until nearly three hundred years later.
So they were they were building these these grass these
fiber bridges to connect their highway system. And if you're
having trouble picturing this, I would recommend looking it up
to see what they look like. Is that you can
see pictures of them today. But also essentially it's a

bridge hanging from ropes. Yes, that's what it is. Yeah.
And there is one left in the world. Um, there's
I mean one incong grass bridge. One one remaining incong
grass bridge, and it is the Quechua Chaka uh and
and it's there's like a single inca bridge keeper named
Victoriano otis Pana who believe it's still alive, still caring

for the bridge. Because that's the other thing. If you're
building your bridge, your bridge system, uh, if you're connecting
your highways with rope bridges. Um in a climate like this,
you have you have to continually care for them U
with a with a frequency that you maybe don't have
to to turn to as much with stone bridges. Yeah.
I was watching a video actually about modern upkeep of

these bridges, and they don't just have to maintain them,
they have to replace them frequently. So they'll at at
a certain period every number of years or something. I
think maybe depending on the condition of the bridge, they'll
cut it down and put up a new one indeed.
And uh and and of course there are other areas
where they're really using these these fiber arts as well,

so they're they're create creating fiber boats out of reads,
fiber armor that's longer pound for pound than the steel
worn by conconquistadors, woven slings that could supposedly split a
Spanish sword with the stone that it fired. Uh. They
also had burial and sacrificial textiles that were also quite important,

which in a way that gets into our techno religion
episode of of of your Right, because anytime you have
a culture that has some sort of technology, that technology
is of course going to be used for religious purposes. Oh,
I'm gonna get into that later. And uh, the textiles
are so important. Textiles, along with corn, served as a
kind of currency for paying the soldiers of the empire.

So you really to the point where you almost cannot
overstate the importance of textiles and fiber arts and crafts
within the Inca Empire. Yes, but so reviewing all of
these massive projects and achievements of this empire, I want
to come back to that question I started with at
the beginning, because the traditional understanding is that the Incas

did not have a writing system, and they certainly didn't
have a graphical writing system. And so if you assume
that they didn't have a system for notation of words
in any in any way, these achievements they seem almost
impossible to me, Like how could it be done without
being able to write down notes about how things should

be carried out? Well, it makes you think you you're
sitting that runner off right, and you you say, Hey,
I needed to tell such and such the next village over.
Make sure you remember it. Hey, we have all the
string around here. Type a piece of string around your
pinky finger, and that'll remind you. So, like, how far
could you extrapolate that system? You'd run out of fingers,
but you still have all this string. Yes, And that

brings us back to to the keypoos that we're talking
about today. Now, one of the central themes of this
episode is going to be talking about the disputes about
what is encoded in the keypoos, what kind of information
is in there. I think what's undisputed is that there
is numerical information in there, and that the keeps were
used to keep track of goods and labor in society.

So people living under the Inca Empire might have owed
the state X the number of days of work every
month or something like that. How to keep track of
the number of days you've worked and how many you owe.
And then also people are organized into labor groups. You
need census data to make organizational decisions about how many
people you're going to have doing a certain project or

available if you need them to fight in your army.
And then of course the Incan engineers and architects needed
to be able to make notes about the products of
calculations used in engineering and architecture and all all these
numbers we now know we're encoded in the keep wo
but is there other stuff in them as well? So
here here, we should get into what the Spanish colonial

authorities had to say about that. As we said earlier,
for a long time, pretty much everything we knew about
the Incas came from written records of the Spanish and
that's not a great situation to be in. This you're
depending upon the conquerors, the alien conquerors, to tell you
how these people lived and and when what they're they're

they're not system represented, yeah, I mean there are, they're
just different concerns. The Spanish colonists were very concerned about
the glory of the Spanish crown, with domination, exploitation of resources,
spreading their version of Christianity, so gaining a deep understanding
of the existing cultures and their technology might not have
always been at the forefront of of their list of priorities, right, Yeah,

I mean, the the the system itself does not prize
that so much. Yeah. But more recently, physical clues from
archaeology have started to round out our modern understanding of
the Incas. I think we're getting a better and more
unbiased idea of what the empire looked like. But there's
still so much we don't know. Uh, But so what
what did the Spanish chroniclers make of these keypus. Well,

one of the things that I found is a collection
of awesome illustration jens that the Spanish colonists made of
the keeps, explaining them. Just a few here from the
seventeenth century, one group by Guaman Poma de Ayala and
another group by Martin de Marua. What are we seeing here, Robert, Well,
we are seeing drawings of individuals holding these keepos, which

look again at times just kind of like mops. Like that.
They're not the most detailed representations of what's going on,
I mean, more so in the Marua illustrations than in
the earlier ones. But but then on the other hand,
you do see an attempt to document and understand what's
going on with this with the system. Yeah. One example
is there's it almost looks like a political cartoon. It's

just sort of a black and white drawing of someone
in UH with a with a ponytail and UH and
a tunic of some kind, holding one of these keypoos,
and then there's a little sign extending off of it
that has the word for letter in Spanish, indicating that this,
this election of strings is a message that's being carried.

So I think this is supposed to be an illustration
of the chus keys, but of course there are written
accounts also. I want to read one quote from the
Jesuit missionary Jose de Acosta, and this is cited in
translation in the Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology,
and Medicine and Non Western Cultures edited by Elaine Selene
and translated by the entry author Molly Tune. So here's

this selection. They are keeps, memorials or events registered in
strings on which diverse knots and diverse colors meant different things.
It's incredible what they achieved this way. How much books
can say about history and laws and ceremonies and business accounts.
The keep wus supply all this so promptly that it's admirable.

In order to have these keep us or memorials, there
were official representatives that today are called Keepu Kamayo, who
were obligated to give accounts of everything like the public
scribes here, and as such they have to be given
full credit. For diverse genres like war, government, tribute, ceremony, land.
There were diverse keeps or strings, and in each handling

of these, so many knots and intricacies and strings were attached.
Some were colored, some green, some blue, others white, and
so many differences that just as we form twenty four
letters in different ways to make such an infinity of words,
these knots and colors make innumerable meanings of things. And
there there are also stories of keeps being used for

narrative purposes in other contexts. For example, somebody might be
in the middle of a court case before before a
governor and they have to bring a keep who out
to give testimony in the court. So it's it's serving
as an official record of transactions or some sort of
business history. That the keep who is is the recorded documents.

So we're seeing the not only the externalization of human thought, uh,
but and not only the use of the keep who
as a as a way to remember something and convey information,
but just to store it and immortalize it. Yeah. And
so the question here is can we trust the Spanish
understanding of what they claimed to see? I mean, are

these accounts accurate? Are are that? Is it really true
that you could take a keep who and read testimony
from it. You can take a keep who and read
histories of governments and uh, and even read religious things, uh,
ceremonial incantations, read all of these sort of literary formats
from it. Can you fit a history into knots? And

that's still the question for researchers in this area. So
we'll we'll get into the modern quest to solve the
mystery of the knots in a moment. At first, we
should take a quick break. All right, we're back. So
we're trying to unlock the mysteries of the keep Who's

But one of the problems here, of course, is that
the Empire is long gone. Most of the key pos
they're long gone as well. Yeah. So after the Spanish
conquest of the region, the keypoos were just used less
and less frequently. And there are a bunch of reasons
for that. There's probably some stigma against it because of
the cultural power of the Spanish as the colonists, they

didn't like these things. They thought of them them as idolatrous. Uh.
And so that the Spanish, it is said, destroyed a
lot of the key woos intentionally because you know, they're blasphemy. Uh.
Some were also probably destroyed by the Incas themselves during
their own civil war. Many others were simply lost to time, like,
these are not stone carvings. These are textiles, and they're

you know, they can be subject to the elements. And
so almost all of the key woos we have available
to archaeology today come from graves that we've opened up
or come from private collections that or museums, and they're
originally of unknown origin. We don't know where they come from,
so it can be difficult to figure out what the
keep who was supposed to mean in its original context.

We don't have the contacts, we don't have the uh,
we don't have the record keeper to to tell us
what the notations are referring to. Yeah, and so we're
back to that big question. Are these only numbers? Are
they only the raw data sheets for imperial accounting? Or
do they contain words and calendars and genealogies and astronomy

and royal history and literature and even poems and songs?
Uh and so many. For many years, scholars all knew
that these systems of chords and knots were used for
some kind of notation, but they were not able to
translate or decode them. And eventually, in the first half
of the twentieth century that changed because a scholar named
Leland Locke demonstrated conclusively to the academic community that the

chords carried numeracle messages in decimal form. However, Locke argued
that these knots were used for purely numerical purposes, and
so he was saying that, look, and we can show
how these things work to calculate numbers and to transmit numbers,
and that's all they do. Uh, And this remained the

dominant thinking for a long time. Most scholars were convinced
by Locke's point of view that these didn't have they
didn't have stories in them, they didn't have words in
the literature. And then, of course in this we get
into the bias. We're just approaching this with it with
our own written language so firmly ingrained in our minds exactly. So,
to answer this question, I think we should start by

looking at how you read a keep you, and we
should just start with the numbers, because that's what everybody
agrees is there. How do you read the numbers on
a keep you? Well, we have we have a pretty
good understanding of the numerical notation system. And I want
to give a brief explanation that I got from a
presentation given by a researcher named Gary Earton, and Eurton
is that one of the foremost keep you researchers in

the world. His name comes up a lot if you're
reading about this subject. And Urton says that the keeping
was probably the principal instrument of management of the Inca Empire,
and it was used to manage numbers in the following way.
So picture you're keeping again, put it up in your mind.
You've got the big primary string hanging horizontally, and then
down from that or your pendant strings with knots on

them in different places. So the Inca is, as we've said,
they had a decimal number system that's a base ten
counting system is just like ours. And the way the
strings work is the placement of the knot on the
string represents number places in the same way we represent
them by the order of writing. So think of the
number five hundred and thirty seven. You see that number

written down and you instantly know what it means because
the number the farthest to the right is the ones
place there are seven ones, and then the second most
to the right is the tens place, there are three tens,
and then the number of farthest from the right is
the hundreds place, and there are five hundreds, so it's
five dred and thirty seven. And there's a very similar

placement system with the keepos, except it goes from the
bottom of the string to the top up, so not
at the bottom of the string represents a value of
one the ones place, the next space of the string
represents a value of the tens place, and so on
like that, and then different types of knots represented different
values in those numeral places. So yeah, we can all

easily imagine that, I think, and certainly you can look
at some of the visual age as well, um knots
in the string representing numbers coming together to represent larger numbers. Yeah,
and there are some variations, but that's the gist of it,
and we can be confident that we're reading the strings
correctly because sometimes the strings are summed by other strings.
This is one of the things leland Lock showed, So

that there might be, for example, four pendant strings, and
then the primary string shows a number that happens to
be the sum of all of the pendant strings put together.
So that would be very very unlikely to happen if
that were not if we were not reading the numbers correctly.
But even with the numerical notation, there's a question. Let's

say you're looking at a keep it. You gotta keep
it in your hands, and it might smell kind of
moldy and this ancient thing, and you figure out by
adding up the knots on it, you you figure out
how to read the not placement, and there's six D
and sixty seven of something? What is the something? Uh?
Is there more information to get out of a keep you,
even if it's just meant for numerical notation, as the

traditional hypothesis holds. And so one hypothesis is that the
colors of the chords means something. So maybe a chord
that's red colored means uh, some number of corn ears
of corn, and then uh, the chord that's a different
color means some number of peanuts or something, because I mean.
The other idea would be that it would depend entirely

upon the context that was known by the holder of
the keep it, And that is something that has been
hypothesized as well. For example, some people might say that
the keep who would require specially trained people to keep
track of an orally transmit contextual in information about the keep. So,
for example, these chatskys the runners uh. The idea was

that the runners would deliver the keep bus for numerical data,
but they would also orally relay messages contextualizing the numbers,
so that handoff to keep you to you it's six
sixty seven, and they say, this is the number of
times the emperor is going to kick you in the
face if you don't do what he says, or or
this is the number of ears of corn he'll give

you if something if you do what he wants. So
in this model, the keep who would not be say,
a a more primitive substitute for written language. It would
be a notation system that does not in and of
itself tell the story or tell the complete data it
relies to upon the narration and or interpretation of another human. Yes, exactly,

and this is something that also might have been done
by these people called the keepu kama yuk, the not keepers,
who were talked about by the Spanish who specialized in
creating and reading the keeps. These were like the scribes
who would be called out if you needed to keep
you read in court to give testimony. The scribe would
come out and explain what the keep you said, So

the idea here could be that, well, maybe some of
the information isn't in the keep who, it's in the scribe,
and the scribe knows okay, this keep who means X,
Y and z. So there's the possibility that the idea
is just sort of hard coded numerical data with oral metadata. Okay.
But then back to your point though, that we do
see colors, we do see other differences that go beyond

the mere knots right, yes, exactly. And one other very
interesting fact, speaking to the BBC in two thousand three
that scholar I mentioned earlier, Gary Urton gave this figure
that's kind of interesting. About two thirds of the known
keep you at that time. That number might have changed
somewhat since then, but about two thirds of them back
then obviously consisted of numerical figures. They fit the standard

scholarly model. You can look at the numbers and just
count up numbers. But what about the other one third.
There's this other group of keepus that we have available
to archaeologists that don't obviously just transmit numerical information. So
what's going on with them? Are they saying something? And
that's the big question that scholars are still trying to

answer today. So one of the biggest steps towards discovering
the other information contained in the keypoo, if there is
such information, is the creation of a standardized computer database
of KEEPU descriptions, because it's very hard, you know, like
you don't know what information is relevant. So you're looking
at a bunch of textile woven stuff and you're like, well,
this one has kind of a fraight end. Is that

something that could that mean something? Or is that just
how it is? And this one has an overhand not,
this one has an underhand not in the same place.
Is that meaningful? Is that coding some kind of something
that would means means something makes sense? Or is it
just an accident. So having a standardized database of descriptions
and looting basically all of the relevant information that you

can state about these strings allows people to cross reference
them and look for patterns, and especially allows computer programs
to look for patterns in the strings and knots, because
patterns are often the key to translation. For example, if
you see a very commonly repeated pattern in something, even
if you have no idea what the pattern means, you

might start by assuming it represents a common word like
the name of an emperor or the name of a
capital city or something like that. And so researchers have
been doing this. Actually more than a decade ago. Harvard
University researchers Gary Earton and Carrie Braziine started doing computer
analysis of keep you and in two thousand five they
published research suggesting that introductory chords on some of these

keep who might serve as toponyms, which would be like
location tags that would be the name of a place
to show where keep you came from or what community
at concerned. And if this is correct, this means said, Okay,
we definitely know there's some kind of notation in these
strings other than mere numbers the name of a place,

and if there's a name of a place, there could
be other words. Right. That's interesting. Um. Yeah, And especially
again if you think back to the INCA is just
is having such an expertise and textiles like textiles are
going to speak to their their masters, perhaps in a
way that that they're just not going to speak to

a modern observer, even a modern observer who has immersed
themselves in the topic. Uh. And I also have to
say that the idea of a modern computer essentially speaking
or attempting to speak and communicate with this older form
of notation, this older informational system is just really mind boggling.

I love I just loved to envision it. Yeah, it's
it's really interesting. And there's another really interesting development. This
is actually reading this story. What made me want to
do this episode that there's a very recent discovery that
might help us crack the code. It might give us
a foothold into looking for the Rosetta stone of the Keepo.

So the discovery was that there's an archaeological site about
a hundred miles south of Lima, Peru, and it's called Incahuas.
And at the site, excavators found a collection of keepoos
in their original place of use. If you want to
look this up, there's a great New York Times article
on it called Untangling, an accounting tool and an ancient
Incan mystery from January. So the keepoos in their original

place of use, it was a storage facility for food crops.
So they've got foods. They're like peppers, corn beans, peanuts,
and remnants of many of these foods have been preserved
by the arid climate of the site, so we can
still tell what crops were where in the storehouse. And
this is significant because, as we said before, most keepoos

today they don't come from their original context. They were
buried in a grave with somebody, or they came from
somebody's private collection, and we don't know where they originally
came from or what they might have meant. So here
we can see keepos along with the quantities they're supposed
to be counting six hundred and sixty seven, some things
become six hundred and sixty seven baskets of peanuts. And

using this contextual information, archaeologists can look for physical signifiers
in the keepos, like extranots are not orientation or string
color that might correlate with what's being counted, something to
say that this was not six hundred and sixty seven peanuts,
but six hundred sixty seven uh um, you know, bundles

of peanuts or something that there was there was some
other detail that defines exactly what it's saying. And so
if they can find such details that might correlate with
what's being counted, then, like I said, give us a
foot in the door to start understanding non numerical information
hidden in the strings that we couldn't understand for. But
I do want to also qualify at Gary Urton, that

same scholar he's quoted in the article, and he he
says it's not quite the perfect Rosetta Stone yet. So
if there are any linguistic narratives waiting in the undiscovered
deciphered keeps, we haven't found the perfect key to decoding
them yet. But that made me wonder what would be
the jackpot find what what is exactly what we'd like

to find to figure out if they're literary histories and
poems and stuff like that in the keepos. And I
found a pretty good answer to this. In a two
thousand three newspiece for the Journal Science, Charles C. Man
Us offered that the best case scenario would be to
discover a Spanish colonial translation of a known keep, and

then we really would have something like the Rosetta Stone.
So the Rosetta Stone helped us discover how to translate
hieroglyphics by having the same document in hieroglyphics and then
in Greek right next to it. So what we need
is a contemporary translation where um where a Spaniard essentially
set down and said, hey, explain to me what this keep?
Who is saying, show me what this keep who is

saying and in him recording yeah and so, and we
would also have to have access to what the keep
Who was, either to actually have the keep who still
or to have a complex description of what was on it. Okay,
so both of these things have to survive, have to
have existed and to have survived. But if we had
such a thing, we could form the basis of Alexicon. Unfortunately,

we don't think there's anything like that, unless I should
mention that I should mention this though it's a kind
of iffy road to go down. So there is one
set of colonial documents out there, or claimed colonial documents,
produced by the Neapolitan amateur historian Clara Michinelli in the
nineteen nineties, which claims to include an original historical account

of the literary contents of keep Wo and so it
explains that some keep Whos contain a secret phonetic rendering
of the Andean language Quechua, which you mentioned earlier. And
they say certain physical markers on the strings represent syllables
of the language. So that would be actual phonetic language,
not just not like a symbol, not like a not
means a word. But like a certain symbol on the

rope means a sound that you make with your mouth.
So what's the problem with this document? Well, if it
were true, would be a huge discovery. But um, but
this collection of documents has been regarded with what I
would describe as serious skepticism by the scholars I was reading.
I haven't seen any Indian scholars talking about it in
recent publications. Almost everything that mentions it says, I don't know,

this looks kind of iffy. Um. So it doesn't seem
to me like the academic community is persuaded that these
documents hold any value. They might be forgeries, or they
might the documents might be really historical, but they might
have been forged at the time they were created. But
if you want to learn more about that, you can
google the Mitchinelli documents or the Naples documents and that

will turn up some leads for you. So the mystery
of whatever literary content the keepos contain is still a mystery.
We we don't have the answer yet. Who know, we
may never have the answer, or we may find out that,
you know what, it's all, it's all just numerical notation.
In fact, there is no literary content there. But I
hope that's not the case, because it really would be

amazing to suddenly uncover the meaning of of all these
documents that contain the history we never got from the Spanish. Yeah,
and you know, you you want that culture to still
have a voice in our world despite um what was
done to eradicated and that that also gets to another
um area here is that and one of the other

just huge tragedies of of any of the American cultures,
UM is that we will never know where they would
have gone, what would would they would have developed into
without this outside context event of the of the of
the colonial invasion. Yeah, yeah, I mean, what would the

Incolan culture have looked like a few hundred years down
the road if not for the introduction of of smallpox
and the Christian mission and and the and the military
conquest of the Spanish. It's hard to say, but it
would have been fascinating to learn that because fortunately we
can look back to other physical notation systems in history
and we can actually see how they developed and look

at how they seem to have played into the development
of written language and uh and and and in numbers
as well. Yes, exactly, so if you do think of
of one possibility about the key boos being a sort
of proto writing system, like maybe it wasn't fully able
to communicate literary content yet, but it had some literary content,

like it had some words, but not the whole language
I presented. Uh. That has some parallels that we know
about from other times and places in history. Yeah, particular,
really if we go back to uh Neolithic Mesopotamia particularly,
we're going back to around uh uh seven thousand, five
hundred BC, and this is where we saw the use

of clay tokens in accounting. So these were clay tokens
and they were inscribed with recorded information about traded agricultural goods.
We see the use of small geometric clay objects throughout
the Near East in this period, and it's all serving
as as ultimately as a precursor to writing in mathematics.
So this is trying sort of like the traditional understanding

of the numerical keypo it's trying to it's trying to
use a notation system without writing yet. And of course
in both cases, agricultural is is tremendously important both to
the Inca and to the ancient Mesopotamians because remember it
wasn't just that we learned to cultivate crops and domestigate animals.
These technological advancements changed the shape in the scope of

human life. It demanded new systems of thought, and the
clay tokens were a part of this. Yeah. I would
say one thing that seems significant with the introduction of
agriculture and domesticated animals is that you're not concerned with
what you're eating today, returned with all the things you
have available to eat in the future. Exactly. Yeah. So
with the with the earlier tokens, it's a pretty basic model.

The more primitive tokens, you have like a token with
a sheep on it, and that play picture of a sheep,
a little picture of a sheet, and that means, hey,
this represents one sheep, and that is essentially a pictogram,
all right, you have a symbol that represents the thing
that it is. So like if you have a picture
of a dog, that is a pictogram representing a dog.

But then the tokens uh get more complicated to begin
to represent multiple items. Uh. So you might have a
token that would have multiple sheep on it, and that
would represent multiple sheep. The number of sheep represented there.
What if you just sort of like drew extra sheep
on your Well, we will get into some of that,
because that would be that would be wrong, that would

be counterfeiting, Joe um that. You know, as the city's developed,
you get more and more complex tokens, tokens that they
are not only representing more of one item, but are
essentially breaking off from the idea of a mere pictograph
to the idea of an or pictogram to an ideogram,
which is a symbol that represents an idea. Okay, so

there's a level of abstraction there, right. Like a classic
example of this would be to go back to the
dog picture of a dog. It's a pictogram or a
pictograph representing the dog, but a picture of a dog
with a circle and a slash through it, that of
course means no dogs. And that's the rather simple thing.
But it's it's the next step in uh in in
in symbolic representation. Yeah, it makes sense. It introduces abstract negation. Yeah.

So these were used for these clay tokens were used
for trading and record keeping. They were strung on strings.
In some cases, each end of the string attached to
a clay bullet that was that sealed the deal so
that this would keep you from from tampering with it.
So you have like six sheep you put and that's
that's the number of sheep involved in this deal or whatever.

Then you join the strings you see it, with clay,
nobody can take any tokens off or put them on.
You can't cheat by adding beads exactly. Um. Then they
also had another system where they stored the tokens and
clay envelopes. Uh. But then of course one of the
idea the things here is you put the toke clay
tokens inside a clay structure. How do you know what's

in there? Well, you take but before you seal it
all up, you take the tokens and use them to
to to mark the outside of the clay envelope so
that people will know exactly what's in there. So but
then again you have a sealed record of something. You know.
All of this discussion makes me think about a really
interesting concept that I'd like to do a full episode

on sometime, which is how physical writing systems affect the
way we think. Yeah, I know there are a few
studies along these lines, like one of the things I read. Uh,
just poking around real quick. The subject is about how
the direction of a writing system changes how we envision
the passage of time. That's just one simple example, but

I'm sure there are tons of examples. If you're if
you're a literate person and you interact with reading and
writing on a frequent basis, I think that probably has
some effect on how you interact with the world, on
how your mind perceives, especially abstract concepts. So the question
I have is because almost everybody today who who is literate,

who uses reading and writing, uses graphical reading and writing
markings on a page. Now, you might have some differences
in that, like maybe writing that goes from right to
left or from left to right. That's one thing you
could look at. But how would it change the way
your mind interacts with the world if your physical notation
system of reality is based in strings instead of in

making marketings on a page. Indeed, yeah, we're touring clay tokens. Yeah,
how does that? How does that change the way you
you think about the world talk about the world. Um,
do you live in a world of He had just
trying to imagine the inca mindset where agriculture and textiles
are such an important aspect of your world, and then

then how are they they informing your view of reality itself? Yeah?
I would. I would love to see the sort of
the differences in imaginations, say that are present between a
person who uses standard graphical writing systems and someone who
is maybe a novelist who works in strings with Would

that change how the way a novel unfurls, the way
the story is told. Yeah, Like just thinking back to
what we're talking about earlier, earlier about the wandering god
of the of the incas uh verra coca um? Did
he you know, in sort of modern Western ideas of
a god, sometimes you hear, you know about like the
Book of God, right, and he has a book and

he's writing people's names in it. So did did this
god of the Inca, the wandering god? Did he have
a keepu? And then what what did he consist of?
What kind of information would be bound up in it's not? Oh?
No is? Yeah? Is your name written or not written?
Is your name tied in the keep who of life? Yeah? Um?

And you know another area where all this talk of
clay tokens and and keep us uh and and and
written language another air with this. Uh, I can't help
but think about is our increasing use of emoticons, emojis
and also just memes and gifts to convey our emotional
responses to uh two different scenarios and bits of information

on the Internet. Yeah. Well, I mean one of the
things that's that's true about memes is that many of
them are linguistic in nature, so that on text on
them plenty aren't plenty or just pictures you know. Reaction gifts. Yeah,
it's huge on the Internet. Yeah, like the I mean,
it's kind of exploded into its own thing, but the
whole John travol of wandering into a room confused. There's

no text there, but it conveys a little something more
than merely Hey, I don't understand more than just putting
a row of question marks in response to something. Right. Yes, Um,
there's actually a brilliant uh short. I don't know if
you've seen this yet, but it air on the Coldbart Show. Yeah,
you sent it to me and it was. It's like

a little skit. And the idea is that Facebook is
rolling out an additional feature as a as as a
follow up to their Reactions deal, where the reactions thing
of course, is where they took the thumbs up and
they augmented it so you can do like a heart
or an angry face and a few others. I'm laughing. Yeah,
so they were. This skit involved Facebook rolling out something

called Facebook Alpha, which is essentially them recreating the use
of the alphabet saying hey, we have we have these
all these. Each one of these stands for a different
part of a word. Twenty six symbols that you can
now is to show your reactions to things. Yeah, I
loved out. They were like, you can in fact represent
the entire works of shakespeareancing only these twenty six symbols. Yeah.

So I'll have to link to that on the landing
page for this episode of Stuff to Blow your Mind
dot com, because if you haven't seen it, it's a
not only is it a wonderful stand up of emoji culture, uh,
it also ties into some of the origins of written
language and some of the earlier notation systems that we're
talking about here. Yeah, there's one more interesting fact I
want to get to before we finish out, is that

I don't know if you've got a chance to read
about this, but there's some keep whos still in use
in modern times. Uh And so you would be thinking like, oh, well,
if there are people who know how to, you know,
write in the language of keepoos today, why don't we
just ask them to translate. That's not exactly how they're
used today. Instead of being used for literature or record keeping,
they're used for ritual power. Uh So. The example I

read about was a University College London project page about
how in the Peruvian and East there's this mountain community
called San Cristobal de Rapas, and within this village, in
a protected ceremonial building known as a CA Hawaii, the
villagers have been keeping this gigantic keepu object for ritual

and ceremonial use. And this one giant object is believed
to be collected from a large number of smaller keepu
over the years. Some parts of it are older than others,
some might be more recent. But what really struck me
is the way it was used. And I want to
read a quote from this UCL project page where they
say a number of rituals happen inside the CA Hawaii.

Their most important aspect is labuskada del tiempo, which could
be translated the search for weather when the mountains are
invoked to bring rain. Participants bring offerings like oils, ray wains,
which is crop offerings, coca leaves, kunuk incense, tobacco, liqueurs, flowers,
guinea pigs, et cetera. And the main ritual is the

awe in Trego, which happens on the second night of January.
At this time, the members of the committee that oversees
the use of the pastures around Rapause are rotated the keep.
You are not handled, they're only invoked. Their presence is
considered beneficial to the rituals themselves and to the success
of the political changeover. So this makes me think about

in what ways the functional technologies of one era become
the holy relics of the next, Like which of our
functional technologies could become an item of religious significance in
the future. That this would be sort of like if
if our Excel spreadsheets became holy objects in the pature,
or or if you take the the the hypothesis that

there's more literary information in the keepers, even if our
you know, books or something, even if we couldn't read them,
we just had books put up somewhere as holy objects.
Oh yeah, I mean this gets right into the subject
of grimoires that that covered with a Christian about a
year back, where the book becomes uh more important as

a symbolic representation of the data within it and the
power within it and the meaning with it and as
opposed to just a mirror, uh you know, physical record
of the thing. Yeah. Once again we're seeing this fascinating
line that runs right through between the sort of mundane
usage of technology to the holy power of religion and

all of the symbolic territory in between. I love these
types of subjects, uh. And I loved getting to talk
about the INCA today. Yeah. This has been really cool. Yeah,
I mean really Hopefully, among other things, this will give
you a little more respect for for the fabulous culture
and the sort of a Amalcolm of cultures that came before. Yeah. Absolutely.

And if you're one of the people out there who's
working on this research to try to decode the keypoos
and find out if there's literary information in there and
if so, what it is, uh, we we wish you
all the best and we can't wait to learn more. Yeah. Hey,
in then in the time being, if you want to
check out more content from stuff to blow your mind,
head on over to stuff to Blow your Mind dot com.

That is the mothership. That's where you'll find blog post,
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And if you want to physically send us uh some
sort of keep who Inspired Creation to convey your appreciation

for the podcast, you can find the physical address over
at halft works dot com. And of course, as always,
if you'd like to email us with your thoughts or
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