Inca String Theory

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We have the alphabet. The Egyptians used hieroglyphics. The ancient Mesopotamians had cuneiform marks that they pressed into bricks. Most civilizations develop a language and find a way of writing it down. Which is why anthropologists have wondered for years about the Incas. The great South American seemed to have everything but writing. They formed a complex government, conquered lands from what is now Colombia to Chile, but left no known record of their achievements. They did have strange things called khipus, made out of string, sort of like a grass skirt with knots.

Now one anthropologist is taking a new look at khipus, arguing that these twisted knots and different colors of string might actually be the first known three-dimensional form of writing.


Gary Urton, Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies, Harvard University, author, “Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records.”

Carrie Brezine, works on the khipu database at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.