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Unexplained / Ancient civilizations / The Maya and Incs / Inca May Have Used Knot Computer Code to Bind / 


Inca May Have Used Knot Computer Code to Bind

They ran the biggest empire of their age, with a vast network of roads, granaries, warehouses and a complex system of government. Yet the Inca, founded in about AD1200 by Manco Capac, were unique for such a significant civilisation: they had no written language...But a leading scholar of South American antiquity believes the Inca did have a form of non-verbal communication written in an encoded language similar to the binary code of today's computers. Gary Urton, professor of anthropology at Harvard University, has re-analysed the complicated knotted strings of the Inca - decorative objects called khipu - and found they contain a seven-bit binary code capable of conveying more than 1,500 separate units of information. It has long been acknowledged that the khipu of the Inca were more than just decorative. In the 1920s, historians demonstrated that the knots on the strings of some khipu were arranged in such a way that they were a store of calculations, a textile version of an abacus.

Khipu can be immensely elaborate, composed of a main or primary cord to which are attached several pendant strings. Each pendant can have secondary or subsidiary strings which may in turn carry further subsidiary or tertiary strings, arranged like the branches of a tree. Khipu can be made of cotton or wool, cross-weaved or spun into strings. Different knots tied at various points along the strings give the khipu their distinctive appearance.

Professor Urton's study found there are, theoretically, seven points in the making of a khipu where the maker could make a simple choice between two possibilities, a seven-bit binary code. For instance, he or she could choose between weaving a string made of cotton or of wool, or they could weave in a "spin" or "ply" direction, or hang the pendant from the front of the primary string or from the back. In a strict seven-bit code this would give 128 permutations (two to the power of seven) but Professor Urton said because there were 24 possible colours that could be used in khipu construction, the actual permutations are 1,536 (or two to the power of six, multiplied by 24).

This could mean the code used by the makers allowed them to convey some 1,536 separate units of information, comparable to the estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Sumerian cuneiform signs, and double the number of signs in the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians and the Maya of Central America.

If Professor Urton is right, it means the Inca not only invented a form of binary code more than 500 years before the invention of the computer, but they used it as part of the only three-dimensional written language. "They could have used it to represent a lot of information," he says. "Each element could have been a name, an identity or an activity as part of telling a story or a myth. It had considerable flexibility. I think a skilled khipu-keeper would have recognised the language. They would have looked and felt and used their store of knowledge in much the way we do when reading words."

There is also some anecdotal evidence that khipu were more than mere knots on a string used for storing calculations. The Spanish recorded capturing one Inca native trying to conceal a khipu which, he said, recorded everything done in his homeland "both the good and the evil"...



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