An ancient Inca puzzle

SAN CRISTOBAL DE
RAPAZ, Peru – The route to this village 3,960 meters above sea level runs from
the desert coast up hairpin bends, delivering the mix of exaltation and terror
that Andean roads often provide. Condors soar above mist-shrouded crags.
Quechua-speaking herders squint at strangers who arrive gasping in the thin
air.

Rapaz’s isolation has
allowed it to guard an enduring archaeological mystery: a collection of khipus,
the cryptic woven knots that may explain how the Incas – in contrast to
contemporaries in the Ottoman Empire and China’s Ming dynasty – ruled a vast,
administratively complex empire without a written language.

Archaeologists say
the Incas, brought down by the Spanish conquest, used khipus – strands of
woollen cords made from the hair of animals like llamas or alpacas – as an
alternative to writing. The practice may have allowed them to share information
from what is now southern Colombia to northern Chile.

Few of the world’s
so-called lost writings have proved as daunting to decipher as khipus, scholars
say, with chroniclers from the outset of colonial rule bewildered by their
inability to crack the code. Researchers at Harvard have been using databases
and mathematical models in recent efforts to understand the khipu (pronounced
KEE-poo), which means knot in Quechua, the Inca language still spoken by
millions in the Andes.

Only about 600 khipus
are thought to survive. Collectors spirited many away from Peru decades ago,
including a mother lode of about 300 held at Berlin’s Ethnological Museum. Most
were thought to have been destroyed after Spanish officials decreed them to be
idolatrous in 1583.

But Rapaz, home to
about 500 people who subsist by herding llamas and cattle and farming crops
like rye, offers a rare glimpse into the role of khipus during the Inca Empire
and long afterward. The village houses one of the last known khipu collections
still in ritual use.

Even here, no one
claims to understand the knowledge encoded in the village’s khipus, which are
guarded in a ceremonial house called a Kaha Wayi. The khipus’ intricate braids
are decorated with knots and tiny figurines, some of which hold even tinier
bags filled with coca leaves.

The ability of
Rapacinos, as the villagers are called, to decipher their khipus seems to have
faded with elders who died long ago, though scholars say the village’s use of
khipus may have continued into the 19th century. Testing tends to show dates
for Rapaz’s khipus that are well beyond the vanquishing of the Incas, and
experts say they differ greatly from Inca-designed khipus.
Even now, Rapacinos conduct rituals in the Kaha Wayi beside their khipus, as
described by Frank Salomon, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin
who led a recent project to help Rapaz protect its khipus in an
earthquake-resistant casing.

One tradition
requires the villagers to murmur invocations during the bone-chilling night to
the deified mountains surrounding Rapaz, asking for the clouds to let forth rain.
Then they peer into burning llama fat and read how its sparks fly, before
sacrificing a guinea pig and nestling it in a hole with flowers and coca.

The survival of such
rituals, and of Rapaz’s khipus, testifies to the village’s resilience after
centuries of hardship. Fading murals on the walls of Rapaz’s colonial church
depict devils pulling Indians into the flames of hell for their sins. Feudal
landholding families forced the ancestors of many here into coerced labour.

Rapacinos have also
faced more recent challenges. A government of leftist military officers in the
1970s created economic havoc with nationalization, sowing chaos exploited by
the Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path who terrorized Rapaz into the 1990s,
effectively shutting it off from significant contact with the rest of Peru.

Throughout it all,
perhaps because of the village’s high level of cohesion and communal ownership
of land and herds, Rapacinos somehow preserved their khipus in their Kaha Wayi.

Far from Rapaz, the
pursuit to decipher khipus faces its own challenges, even as new discoveries
suggest that they were used in Andean societies long before the Inca Empire
emerged as a power in the 15th century.

Scholars say they
lack the equivalent for khipus of a Rosetta Stone, the granite slab whose
engravings in Greek were used to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Jesuit manuscripts discovered in Naples, Italy, had seemed to achieve something
similar for khipus, but are now thought to be forgeries.

In Rapaz, villagers
still guard their khipus the way descendants of those in the West might someday
protect shreds of the Bible or other documents if today’s civilizations were to
crumble.
“They must remain here, because they belong to our people,” said Fidencio Alejo
Falcon, 42. “We will never surrender them.”

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