Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Knotty problem

As a language geek, the loss of our ability to understand communication from past civilizations always strikes me as tragic.

It's worse when that loss was the deliberate work of people trying to silence a culture.  This is the case with the strange and fascinating khipus (also spelled quipus), a set of strings with knots that the Incas used to encode something -- we're not sure what -- and which were systematically destroyed in the 17th century by the Spanish, who were suspicious of a system of communication they couldn't understand, and worried about how it might be used against them.

It's probable that they served more than one purpose -- as most written languages do -- one of which was enumeration.  There are current Andean societies that make at least limited use of khipus for keeping track of numbers of livestock,  But it's far from clear that this was their only use; after all, the Latin alphabet and Arabic numerals can be used for everything from shopping lists to censuses to history texts to telling a story.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Claus Ableiter nur hochgeladen aus enWiki, Inca Quipu, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Part of the problem with decoding them, however, is the same difficulty faced by anyone trying to decipher the Plougastel-Daoulas inscription that I wrote about a few days ago; there simply aren't many of them left.  The Spanish priests who gathered up and burned every khipu they could find simply did their job too well.

The other problem is the one I referenced in the same post, in connection to Linear B and the Voynich Manuscript; we don't even know how the knots correspond to units of language.  The type of knot seems as significant as the spacing, as does the color of the thread, but what any of those features mean is at this point speculation at best.

Another piece of the puzzle was added this week, however, in a paper authored by Alejandro Chu and Gary Urton in the journal Latin American Antiquity.  Chu has discovered 29 khipus at a site called Qolqawasi, and each one was found with quantities of edibles -- chili peppers, peanuts, and other regional crops.  This has led Chu and Urton to theorize that the khipus represented quantities of produce -- and, perhaps, the amount of taxes to be collected on it.  The authors write:
These khipus contain a formulaic arrangement of numerical values not encountered on khipus from elsewhere in Tawantinsuyu (the Inka Empire).  The formula includes first, a large number, hypothesized to record the sum total of produce included in a deposit, followed by a “fixed number,” and then one or more additional numbers.  The fixed number plus the additional number(s) sum to the original large number.  It is hypothesized that the fixed number represents an amount deducted from the deposit to support storage facility personnel.  As such, it represented a tax assessed on deposits, the first evidence we have for a system of taxation on goods in the Inka Empire.  It is proposed that the size and complexity of the storage facility at Inkawasi prompted the “invention” of a kind of financing instrument—taxation—not known previously from Inka administration. 
Their interpretation is not certain -- witness the number of times they use the word "hypothesized" and "proposed" -- but it's an intriguing possibility.  Whether the khipus were used for other purposes, such as in place of a written language, is still worth considering.  It's to be hoped that there will be additional discoveries of these odd artifacts, and that at some point the work of archaeologists such as Chu and Urton will lead to a complete decipherment -- and these voices from the past won't turn out to have been silenced completely.


Aptly enough, considering Monday's post about deciphering scripts, this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is Steven Pinker's brilliant The Stuff of Thought.  Here, experimental psychologist Pinker looks at what our use of language tells us about our behavior and neural wiring -- what, in fact, our choice of words has to do with human nature as a whole.

Along the way, he throws out some fascinating examples -- my favorite of which is his section on the syntax of swearing.  I have to admit, the question, "Just what does the 'fuck' in 'fuck you' actually mean?" is something I've never thought about before, although it probably should have given that I'm guilty of using the f-word a lot more than is generally considered acceptable.

So if you're interested in language, the human mind, or both, this is a must-read.  Although I'll warn you -- if you're like me, it'll leave you thinking, "Why did I just say that?" several times a day.

No comments:

Post a Comment