Questioning the Inca Paradox
Did the civilization behind Machu Picchu really fail to develop a written language?
By Mark Adams
But what if the khipus don't fit neatly into the precise criteria established for true writing? It's possible, says Wisconsin's Salomon, that khipus were actually examples of semasiography, a system of representative symbols—such as numerals or musical notation—that conveys information but isn't tied to the speech sounds of a single language, in this instance Quechua. (By contrast, logographic languages such as Chinese and Japanese are phonetic as well as character-based.) The Incas conquered a huge number of neighboring peoples in a short time span, between 1438 and 1532; each of these groups had its own language or dialect, and the Incas wanted to integrate those new territories into their hyperefficient organizational network quickly. "It makes sense that they'd use a system that could transcend languages," Salomon says.
Below: "Detail of an Inca-era khipu."