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Don’t be frightened. This isn’t about THAT string theory – the one from physics that replace the particles of particle physics with one-dimensional objects called strings. That is a tough one to explain. I can’t even imagine strings propagating through space and interacting with each other and all kinds of vibrational states and the graviton. Nope, no theory of quantum gravity today.

These strings are khipus (“knots”). They are made of twisted and tied cords and were once used by indigenous Andeans for record keeping.

These khipus (AKA Spanish spelling quipus) are best known by archaeologists as record keeping devices of the Inca Empire. That Empire had more than 18 million people and covered 3,000 miles of South America. It existed from the early 1400s until the Spanish conquest in 1532.

But what did they mean? How were they used? Was it their form of “writing?”

One older theory was that they were simple memory aids, similar to prayer beads. Current research seems to point to them being a three-dimensional writing system. Analyzing color, fiber and twist direction they found 95 unique signs. That is enough to constitute a writing system.

Those colonial-era Spaniards observed them being used never learned how they were use. But they appeared to be the way the numerical data (censuses, inventories) were recorded. But they might have also been used for narrative (phonetic) records such as letters and histories.

There are less than a thousand surviving khipus in museums and collections. Some remote mountain villages still used khipus as cultural artifacts into the 20th century, but reading them has not survived.

So far, there is no link between a quipu and Quechua, the native language of the Peruvian Andes, which suggests that they are not a glottographic or true writing system. Perhaps, they are a system of representative symbols, more like music notation, and relay information but are not directly related to the speech sounds of a particular language.

Looking at some of those strings and knots seems as difficult to interpret as the strings supposedly floating all around us in the quantum universe.

 

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu in Peru is the best known religious site for Inca leaders. Their civilization was virtually wiped out by Spanish invaders in the 16th century.

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I saw a news story this weekend about continuing exploration in Luxor, Egypt in the tomb of Ancient Egypt’s boy-king Tutankhamun. Many people are intrigued by Tut, but what amazes me is that this tomb from seven centuries ago still has passages and hidden chambers that we haven’t discovered. The real quest there currently is to find the last resting place of the lost Queen Nefertiti.  Nefertiti, who died in the 14th century B.C. and is thought to be Tutankhamun’s stepmother.

My own explorations have been of the armchair variety, but date back to my childhood. My mom bought me many of the How and Why book series about science.

I wrote one of my ronka poems about them.

The How and Why books of childhood
took me into space and into Earth,
back in time, to lost cities, dinosaurs.
I dug in, flew high, and wondered –
and no question, thankfully, ever fully answered.

One of those books took me into the jungles of South America to find the Maya and Inca lost cities. That introduced me to the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu is on the eastern slope of the Peruvian Andes.

It was built about 500 years ago, at the height of the Inca Empire. A “lost city” made up of about 200 buildings, including temples, houses, and baths, it was rediscovered by an American archaeologist in 1911.

It is a place that probably is on a lot of bucket lists. There is something about a mysterious civilization and “lost city” that intrigues us. Hundreds of thousands of people visit it every year and it is one of the largest tourist attractions in South America.

Really, the city was never “lost” to the locals, but Hiram Bingham was one of the first outsiders to see it. He was in Peru in search of the lost Incan capital, Vitcos. Locals led him to a ruined city on top of one of the nearby mountains. The explorers were surprised to see families living in the area and farming on some of the lower terraces of Machu Picchu.

The following year his team cleared vegetation and started restoring the buildings. Bingham also took artifacts back to Yale with him. In 2010, the Peruvian government successfully petitioned President Obama for the return of the artifacts.

Machu Picchu has many terraced levels connected by 3,000 steps with a sophisticated irrigation system. Like other ancient structures, the construction is a marvel, even by modern standards. The stone blocks they used to build were shaped using only hard river rocks – no steel or iron chisels – but they fit so tightly together that a knife blade can’t be slipped between them.

The terraces were a way to grow crops and also deal with heavy annual rainfall. Not unlike some modern landscaping, they used layers of stone, covered by smaller stone chips, sand and topsoil that allowed water to drain and avoided mudslides on the slopes.

The location might have also been used for defensive protection from enemies. But it is thought that it might have been built as a resort or estate for Incan nobility. It could have been a religious site. We still aren’t sure, and a little mystery makes it more interesting.

I support the theory that, as with the Maya, at least part of its use was for astronomical observations. At the highest part of the site, the Intihuatana stone was used to mark the equinoxes and other celestial events, and local shamans consider the stone as a gateway to the spirit world.

If I ever get to visit, I will want to touch the stone with my forehead to open a vision to the spirit world., and visit the temple of the Moon, the temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows.

The Inca abandoned it at the time of the Spanish conquest when it was only a hundred years old. There is no evidence that Spanish conquerors ever found the city. One theory is that an epidemic of smallpox, carried by the Spanish, wiped out the people.

 

 

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