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  • The Twisting Paths of Recall: Khipu (Andean cord notation) as artifact

    Frank Salomon

    Chapter from the book: Piquette K. & Whitehouse R. 2013. Writing as Material Practice: Substance, surface and medium.

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    Khipu, the cord- and knot-based Andean information medium, had a one-century heyday (15th century – 1532 CE) as the administrative script of the Inka empire. Before and after this period, however, the cord medium underwent a varied evolution, including the development of material attributes different from Inka norms. In this chapter, I review innovative recent work on the material-meaningful nexus in Inka khipu, and then suggest how other studies — both archaeological and ethnographic — further clarify our notions of khipus’ ‘inscribed object-world’.

    The best-understood property of Inka khipus is the use of knots to register numbers and calculations in decimal registry. However, knotted arithmetic falls far short of explaining all the physical attributes of khipus, such as many-stranded and multicolored cords of varied structure, attached tufts and bulbs, and knotting arrays that defy the decimal structure.

    Archaeologically, elaborate khipus are known to have predated the Inka format by at least a half-millennium. Such pre-Inka khipu were less knotted than Inka ones, but more colorful and perhaps more aesthetically driven. Khipus also continued to be made well into the 20th century CE, and have been ethnographically studied. Studies of khipu in communities that used cords for herding or as media for internal administration also point to properties other above and beyond knotability. Foci of the present essay include the fact that this eminently flexible medium exists in different physical states during its use cycle; that its composition by physically discrete parts lends it to use as a simulation device as opposed to text-fixing device; that its physical mode of articulating parts tends toward diagrammatic representation of data hierarchies, rather than sentential syntax; and that the act of ‘reading’ was physically distributed among cord-handlers, calculators, and interpreters, implying that there was no such actor as the unitary reader. Without denying that there were established practices for verbalizing khipu content, I suggest that Tufte’s notion of “data graphic” may be more faithful to khipu practice than models premised on ‘writing proper’.

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    How to cite this chapter
    Salomon, F. 2013. The Twisting Paths of Recall: Khipu (Andean cord notation) as artifact. In: Piquette K. & Whitehouse R (eds.), Writing as Material Practice. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bai.b
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    This is an Open Access chapter distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (unless stated otherwise), which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Copyright is retained by the author(s).

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    Additional Information

    Published on Dec. 18, 2013

    DOI
    https://doi.org/10.5334/bai.b


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