The lost Inca civilization of the Andes developed a seven-bit binary code using knotted string called Khipu, a leading American anthropologist argues. If true, the relics would have invented binary language around 500 years before the invention of the computer. The coloured textiles could have provided thousands of language permutations; around the same as the Sumerian cuneiform of 1,500 to 1,000 BC, according to Harvard University professor Gary Urton. The pre-Columbian expert’s findings could shatter the long-held belief that the enigmatic Incas, who were destroyed when the Spanish conquistadors garrotted last ruler Atahualpa in 1533, are the only Bronze Age culture without writing. Khipus have been thought to illicit information since 1923, when science historian L. Leland Locke claimed their coloured knots were used as abacuses. However, Locke’s findings only examined a tiny proportion of the 600 khipu in existence today, and Urton believes Locke to have deciphered less than half of the information on them. Urton announced his theory in 2003 – a year after beginning his Khipu Database Project, which aims to provide the world with a centralised repository of the mysterious pendants.
“The most convincing evidence for this three-dimensional writing system is the khipu,” Urton tells Discovery News. “Their complexity would have been unnecessary if they were just mnemonic devices understood only by their makers.” Urton’s findings are based upon the seven different binary choices in making khipu. These include type of material (cotton or wool); direction of the knot; length of string; details on the knots and so on. A standard seven-bit code would effect 128 possibilities, but Urton believes the 24 different colours used boosts the total to 1,536 outcomes. This rivals early cuneiform, and is double that of Egyptian and Maya hieroglyphs. What Urton now needs is what he calls a ‘Rosetta khipu’, after the Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799, from which experts decoded the Egyptian language. “We have a sizeable number of khipu, and we have about a dozen documents that are written up from the khipu,” Urton adds. “What we don’t have yet is a match between a document and a khipu.” Bologna University pre-Columbian scholar Laura Laurencich-Minelli agrees in part with Urton’s assumptions. “Certainly, khipu were much more than mnemonic devices,” she says. Pre-Columbian American is sure to be grabbing more headlines in the near future, as the British Museum launches its ‘Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler‘ exhibition on September 24.