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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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