Subject:      silence about Inca writing?
From: (Yuri Kuchinsky)
Date:         1997/05/07
Message-ID:   <5kqd6l$n76$>


Well, I looked into this matter recently, and I will state here my
belief that this idea that the prehispanic South Americans didn't
use a writing system of their own seems to me completely off the
mark. In my own recent investigations, however cursory, I have
already seen evidence that quite a few writing systems were known to
them. I can't believe that after looking at these representations
people would deny that these are ideographic writing systems... And
it is quite a difficult matter for me to understand why the
mainstream scholarship seems to be so "blind" about the existence of
these systems.

Indeed, when we realize the complexity and the sophistication of
South American societies, the scale of their economic achievements,
and their apparent connections with the contemporary societies in
Central America, where writing systems were used at the time, it
would be inconceivable that the Incas didn't possess _the idea of a
writing system_, and that all these achievements could have been
achieved without using a writing system.

      The scale of social, political, and economic endeavour in the
      Andes at the time of the invasion has consistently been
      underestimated. The structural and managerial preconditions to
      build, maintain, and dispatch an oceangoing fleet; ... [to
      accomplish other difficult tasks, and] trace and
      construct 25000 kilometres of highway -- all these
      technological achievements presuppose a macro-organization on
      a scale beyond anything familiar to the inhabitants of
      contemporary Europe.
            Andrien, ed, U. of California Press, 1992, p. 77)

The chief investor in the invasion of the Andes, Gaspar de Espinoza,
wrote this to the King Charles V:

      these Indians of the provinces of Peru are very skilled at
      making and opening roads and causeways and fortresses and
      other buildings of stone and earth and to open water canals
      and in this building it is said that they are far ahead of us
      [nos hazen mucha ventaja].
            (quoted in ibid, p. 78)

So how all this could be accomplished without a system of writing?
This seems incredible to me. I think the real question should be
about _the kinds_ of systems used and about the roles of these
systems in religion and in social organization. It seems pretty
obvious that, at a later stage, severe restrictions were used by the
Incas on who can learn and use writing systems and in what
circumstances. It was very possibly a (semi)secret writing system,
associated with certain taboos. Indeed, the native
historical/mythological accounts available to us indicate that
writing was used more widely in the past, but at some point, perhaps
around 1000 ce (possibly during the reign of King Pachacuti VII, who
was the king at the time of the fall of the Old Kingdom) during a
severe social crisis, prohibitions against using writing systems
were issued.

The history of the Andean notational systems is quite unique and
fascinating. I don't think it is easy to find parallels in world
history to this situation, although the history of Druid Ogham
writing systems perhaps comes close in some ways. Indeed, here was
a writing system the use of which was strictly regulated, and
protected by taboos. But what do we really know about the Druid
system? Not much.

Here are some of the types of South American writing systems that
are known.

-     Tucapus -- square and mostly abstract signs, used on Inca
      textiles and in other media -- were part of a complicated
      system of graphic communication ...
            Andrien, ed, U. of California Press, 1992, p. 151)

-     Quellca -- a writing system referred to in the 1608 work on
      Quechua language by Gonzales Holguin.
            (This is discussed in detail in DER TANZ UM DEN
            BUCHSTABEN, by Fernando Prada Ramirez, Regensburg, 1994,
            p. 95 ff.)

-     One also may note a very interesting _Parejhara_ system of
      native writing that was used in post-conquest times to record
      information. We know of Catholic religious texts written in
      this system. This really seems like an original native
      prehispanic system that was perhaps modified and adapted to
      new uses.
            (Prada, p. 102, has a description and an illustration.)

-     The "bean writing" of the Mochicas. This is clearly a writing
      system. In DER TANZ UM DEN BUCHSTABEN, by Prada, some
      illustrations are provided that show how messages were
      transmitted by runners and interpreted by scribes.
            (These illustrations appeared originally in Busto, PERU
            PREINCAICO, Lima, 1988, and earlier editions.)

-     The robes of the Inca rulers seem to be "books" in their own
      right. The illustrations that I've seen in a number of
      publications, including in the TRANSATLANTIC ENCOUNTERS, cited
      above, show clearly that some sort of a writing system was
      used to record important information on these ceremonial
      robes. This is surely related to _tucapus_ writing system.
      Also related to this were the special embroidered belts worn
      by high Inca officials.

-     And of course the _quipus_, the string-and-knots notation
      devices of which all of us know... Whether or not quipus can
      be considered a true writing system is open to question, but
      Prada indicates that they may qualify as such, because with
      their help many kinds of important information, including
      mythological and historical information, were recorded.


Be it as it may, but the information that I've been able to find
about all this so far all seems to be in Spanish and in German.
Where are the English language studies? My Spanish is OK, but my
German is a bit rusty, so it was unfortunately rather time-consuming
for me to gather this information, and I haven't yet been able to
figure out some parts of the texts.

Nevertheless, here's an interesting quote that I found:

      Die Tatsache, dass die praekolonialen amerikanischen
      Gesellschaften keine alphabetische Schrift hatten, darf in
      keinem Moment so interpretiert werden, dass sie keine genauen
      Notierungsmedien wie das Khipu oder graphische Systeme benutzt
      haetten, die in den Webmustern, der Keramik und im heiligen,
      durch die Huacas determinierten geographischen Raum, in Bergen
      und Seen verkoerpert werden.
            (DER TANZ UM DEN BUCHSTABEN, by Fernando Prada Ramirez,
            Regensburg, 1994, p. 129)

Here's my rough translation:

      The fact that the precolonial [South] American societies
      didn't possess an alphabetic script should in no wise be so
      interpreted as to suppose that they didn't possess a _true
      notational system_ (genauen Notierungsmedien) such as Quipu,
      or a _graphic system_ -- which was incorporated into textiles,
      ceramics, and among mountains and lakes in [special kinds of]
      geographical maps.

(Now, the last bit about maps I'm not quite sure about, but Prada
explains it in detail... in German, of course!) And further:

      Der Indios der Anden besassen nicht nur die muendliche
      Ueberlieferung fuer die Erhaltung ihrer Kultur. Ich glaube in
      diesem Kapitel gezeigt zu haben, dass die andinen
      Gesellschaften Notierungssysteme kannten, die die Reproduktion
      der kulturellen Diskurse durch dauerhafte materielle Medien
      versuchten. (ibid.)

      The Indians of the Andes didn't only use oral narratives to
      preserve their cultures. I hope to have shown in this chapter
      that the Andean societies DID POSSESS NOTATIONAL SYSTEMS
      [capitals mine] which employed various material media to
      incorporate and reproduce cultural discourse.

Further down, Prada names these media:

- Pallares,
- Kerus, [wooden drinking cups]
- Kleidung, [textiles]
- semantishen Strukturen der Geographie, [geographical notations on
- Khipu [quipus]

So here we go. This is all for now.

Perhaps someone will be able to contribute more information about this
obscure stuff?

Best regards,


Yuri Kuchinsky   | "Where there is the Tree of Knowledge, there
     -=-         | is always Paradise: so say the most ancient
 in Toronto      | and the most modern serpents."  F. Nietzsche
 ----- my webpage is for now at: [22] -----

Click here to go one level up in the directory.