The College Student Who Decoded the Data Hidden in Inca Knots

There are many ways a college student might spend spring break. Making an archaeological breakthrough is not usually one of them. In his first year at Harvard, Manny Medrano did just that.

“There’s something in me, I can’t explain where it came from, but I love the idea of digging around and trying to find secrets hidden from the past,” Medrano says.

With the help of his professor, Gary Urton, a scholar of Pre-Columbian studies, Medrano interpreted a set of six khipus, knotted cords used for record keeping in the Inca Empire. By matching the khipus to a colonial-era Spanish census document, Medrano and Urton uncovered the meaning of the cords in greater detail than ever before. Their findings could contribute to a better understanding of daily life in the Andean civilization.

The Inca Empire reached its height of power in 15th- and 16th-century Peru. When Spanish conquistadors invaded, the Inca had established the largest and most complex society in the Americas. Architectural marvels from the civilization, such as Machu Picchu, survive to this day, but the Inca left behind no written records.

“The only sources we have at present are chronicles of the Inca that were written by the Spaniards,” Urton says.* “We know in a lot of cases those histories were skewed by Spanish beliefs and Spanish motivations, and so we don’t really have any indigenous Inca history.”

The only records the Inca are known to have kept are in the form of intricately knotted khipu textiles. In 2002, Urton began Harvard’s Khipu Database Project. He traveled to museums and private collections around the world to record the numbers of knots, lengths of cords, colors of fibers, and other distinguishing details about every Inca khipu he could find—more than 900 in total.

Urton says he and other researchers in the field have always had a general sense of what the khipus represented. Many, they could tell, had to do with census data. Others appeared to be registers of goods or calendar systems. But, until recently, none of the khipus Urton studied could be understood on a very detailed level. If the khipus held messages or cultural information beyond just numbers, the meanings were opaque to modern scholars.

A turning point came when Urton began looking into a set of six khipus from the 17th-century Santa River Valley region of Northwest Peru. One day, Urton picked up a book and happened to spot a Spanish census document from the same region and time period.

“A lot of the numbers that were recorded in that census record matched those six khipus exactly,” Urton says.

Read more: Atlas Obscura

Broadcasts in a Native Language, Speaking to Every Corner of Peru

The language of soccer games is ripe with phrases, metaphors and clichés that reflect modern life: a coach who parks the bus, a midfielder who shoots rockets, a striker who scores with a bicycle kick. But at 11,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, the vocabulary changes. That is where Luis Soto, who hosts a daily sports program on Radio Inti Raymi, is narrating Peru’s first appearance at the World Cup since 1982 in his native language, Quechua.

Soto captures the action on the field with references closer to his home in Cusco, Peru. When a midfielder controls the ball and neutralizes attacks, he is hoeing the land. When a player kicks the ball with power, he has eaten a lot of quinoa. And when Edison Flores, one of Peru’s stars, scored an important goal against Ecuador to help the team qualify for the World Cup in Russia, he built roads where there were only narrow walking paths.

Before that, Soto had to clear a basic hurdle: finding a term for “soccer ball.” Quechua was developed by the ancient Incas, and the only word for ball that he knew was used in Cusco referred to a sphere made from pieces of llama neck leather and used in religious ceremonies.

“The term didn’t exist,” he said, “so we had to adapt.”

After canvassing local players, Soto settled on “qara q’ompo,” which means leather ball, or sphere. It is one of about 500 terms and phrases he has compiled over the last decade into what is probably the world’s only Quechua soccer dictionary. He shares it freely with anyone who is interested.

Quechua is an oral tradition that is written in Spanish transliteration and varies in different parts of the country and the continent. Soto, like most Quechua speakers, learned the language at home, not in a formal school setting. His soccer dictionary reflects only his experience and regional interpretation. Language experts from other parts of Peru, for example, say the words “ruyruku” and “haytana” have also been used to refer to a soccer ball.

To prepare for the World Cup, Soto, 44, spent months practicing with videos of games to hone his speed and tone, knowing that his listeners — hundreds of thousands of them — would be experiencing an important moment for Peru on the world stage in their native language for the first time.

Read more: The NY Times

When Genetics and Linguistics Challenge the Winners’ Version of History

Two conquering empires and more than 500 years of colonial rule failed to erase the cultural and genetic traces of indigenous Peruvians, a new study finds. This runs contrary to historical accounts that depict a complete devastation of northern Peru’s ancient Chachapoya people by the Inca Empire.

The Chachapoyas—sometimes referred to as “Warriors of the Clouds” because they made their home in the Amazonian cloud forests—are mainly known today for what they built: fortified hilltop fortresses and intricate sarcophagi overlooking their villages from sheer, inaccessible cliff sides. The little we know about their existence before the arrival of the Spanish comes to us via an oral history passed along by the Inca to their Spanish conquerors—in other words, the winners’ version of history.

Now, a study tracking the genetic and linguistic history of modern Peruvians is revealing that the Chachapoyas may have fared better than these mainstream historical accounts would have us believe. As Chiara Barbieri, a post-doctoral researcher from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, puts it: “Some of these historical documents were exaggerated and a little bit biased in favor of the Inca.”

Many of these early reports stem from two historians who essentially wrote the book on the Inca Empire during the time period from 1438 to 1533: Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a conquistador and Incan princess who published chronicles on the Inca Empire in the early 17th century, and Pedro de Cieza de Leon, a Spanish conquistador from a family of Jewish converts who travelled through the area in the mid-16th century, and wrote one of the first lengthy histories of the Inca people and Spanish conquests.

According to Cieza de Leon’s account, it was in the 1470s, about midway through the Inca Empire, that paramount leader Túpac Inca Yupanqui first attacked the Chachapoyas in what is today northern Peru. He quickly found that the Warriors of the Clouds were not the type to give up without a fight. Cieza de Leon described the first battle between Yupanqui and the Chachapoyas in the first part of his Chronicle of Peru:

The Chachapoyas Indians were conquered by them, although they first, in order to defend their liberty, and to live in ease and tranquillity, fought with such fury that the Yncas fled before them. But the power of the Yncas was so great that the Chachapoyas Indians were finally forced to become servants to those Kings, who desired to extend their sway over all people.

Beaten but not defeated, the Chachapoyas rebelled again during the reign of Yupanqui’s son after the latter died. Huayna Capac had to re-conquer the region, but encountered many of the difficulties his father had, according to Cieza de Leon:

Among the Chachapoyas the Inca met with great resistance; insomuch that he was twice defeated by the defenders of their country and put to flight. Receiving some succour, the Inca again attacked the Chachapoyas, and routed them so completely that they sued for peace, desisting, on their parts, from all acts of war. The Inca granted peace on conditions very favourable to himself, and many of the natives were ordered to go and live in Cuzco, where their descendants still reside.

De la Vega’s account, written nearly 50 years after Cieza de Leon’s in the early 17th century, tells a similar story of a decisive conquest and subsequent forced dispersal of the Chachapoyas around the Inca Empire. The Inca often used this strategy of forced dispersal, which they referred to by the Quechua word mitma, to dissuade future rebellion in the vast region they came to control. (Quechua, according to the new study, is the most widely-spoken language family of the indigenous Americas.)

“We have some records in the Spanish history that the Inca had replaced the population completely, moving the Chachapoyas for hundreds of kilometers and replacing them with people from other parts of the empire,” Barbieri says.

These and other accounts are some of the only historical notes we have of the Inca, who lacked any system of writing other than the quipu, or knot records. The quipu system of cords used different types of knots to indicate numbers, and was used for accounting and other records.

“We know a lot about what the Inca did because Inca kings, or high officials, were talking to Spanish historians,” Barbieri says. “So the piece of history of this region that we know is very much biased towards what the Inca elite were telling the Spaniards. What we don’t know was what happened before that—everything that happened before the 16th century.”

That is now changing, thanks to a genetic study on which Barbieri was lead author, published recently in Scientific Reports.

Read more: Smithsonian

Peruvian government is working to keep its 47 indigenous languages alive

Amadeo Garcia and Pablo Andrade are the last speakers of their mother tongues. Garcia speaks the indigenous language Taushiro, while Andrade speaks Resigaro.

The two indigenous languages are among 17 that are critically endangered in Peru. Indigenous languages belong to groups of people who are native to the land, as opposed to Spanish, which comes from Europe. Spanish was brought to South America by European colonists and explorers more than 500 years ago. In Peru, modern life has made its way into the isolated Amazon basin region, wiping out many native peoples’ way of life. Their languages have gone along with it.

Garcia, who is 67 years old, is the last living Taushiro, an indigenous group native to northern Peru. The group was destroyed by disease and poisoned water caused by oil spilling into their rivers. The Taushiro were also killed off by violent clashes with outsiders who came to take rubber from nearby trees.

Andrade, who is 65, has also watched his people and their language fade away. He lived until recently with his sister, Rosa, the other surviving speaker of Resigaro. Last month she was mysteriously killed, leaving him with no one to talk to in their dying Amazonian language.

Read more: Newsela

There were only two speakers of this language left in the world, and one was murdered

It’s now up to a single 65-year-old man in the northern jungle of Peru to prevent a native Amazon language from disappearing forever.

Like so many plants and animals in the Amazon, native languages are an endangered species. Last month, 67-year-old Rosa Andrade Ocagane, one of two people known to still speak the language resígaro, was brutally murdered, according to newspaper El País (Spanish). That leaves her brother, Pablo, as the only resígaro speaker still alive. Andrade was also one of just 40 people who speak another threatened language, ocaina.

The languages in Amazon rainforest, which has undergone massive deforestation in recent decades, are particularly vulnerable to obsolescence. Amazon basin countries account for almost 20% of all endangered tongues in the world, UNESCO data show. The countries over which the rainforest stretches, including Peru, Brazil and Colombia, are in the process of losing more than 400 languages, according to data from UNESCO’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger. Nearly 30 languages that once existed in the region are now considered extinct.

Read more: Quartz

Peru officially recognizes native Amazon alphabet

By 2017, Peru hopes to officially recognize all 47 native languages of the country, says the General Director of Rural, Intercultural and Bilingual Education of the Ministry of Education (Minedu), Elena Burga, reports Peru21.

They just got one step closer as Peru just officially recognized the native Amazonian language of Kapanawa.

Spoken by the Kapanawa community, they live in the Loreto region of northern Peru, on the banks of rivers Alto Tapiche and Buncuya.

The Ministry of Education recognized the language with the aim to guarantee its “use, preservation, development, recuperation, promotion and dissemination.”

Read more: Peru This Week