Frank Salomon

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar

1998–1999

Prehispanic Notation and 'Real Writing' in a Peruvian Village

In 1994, a schoolteacher from the high-Andean village of Tupicocha in central Peru urged Frank Salomon to visit his hometown and see its equipos (Spanish for "teams"). "I thought he was talking about soccer teams," Salomon recalls. Instead, he meant the objects archaeologists call khipus: knotted-cord records made by Andean peoples from Middle Horizon times (600-1000 C.E.) onward. Tupicocha's nine khipus are held as sacred patrimony by eight of the ten corporate descent groups, called ayllus, and are displayed in annual civic rites.

The descent groups who own khipus are the same ones whose mythology fills the only Quechua-language book on Andean belief written in the early colony, a source Salomon translated with George Urioste and published in 1991. Because of Tupicocha's peculiarly rich relation to the written record, Salomon felt it was a very special place to find khipus. "This province isn't just any patch of the Andes; it means as much to Andean scholars as the island of Ithaca might mean to Classicists. Second only to the Inca capital of Cuzco, this is the place where our knowledge of Andean culture has real time depth," Salomon explained.

The Tupicocha khipus, known to postdate 1650 through radiocarbon dating, are a unique clue to the persistence of non-alphabetic systems of complex recording far into the era when the written word had achieved solid dominance under Spanish rule. Supported by the National Science Foundation and Wenner Gren in 1994-1997, Salomon studied how and why South America's most notable "writing without words" endured alongside the alphabetic record.

Although today nobody claims the ability to read the khipus, those in Tupicocha offer a unique opportunity for researchers because they are the only known case of khipus functioning as political charters of a living social organization. "While Tupicochans do not now make khipus, they do make other kinds of non alphabetic signs, particularly the unique code carved on their staffs of office," Salomon commented. One fruit of his term at SAR is the first clear model of "how a 'writing without words' actually works." The villagers also continue to carry on the institutional proceedings khipus once recorded, providing functional clues to how khipus worked as a collective record.

By working with village officers and artisans during two fieldwork seasons, Salomon compiled a wide variety of data bases, including a knot-by-knot registry of the specimens, and khipu terminology that might reflect lore inherited from the prehispanic art. He observed how khipus are handled in community work, ritual, and meetings, and he conducted interviews on how the descent groups, or ayllus, function in politics, production, and ritual. Sometimes working by candlelight, Salomon scrutinized the internal records of the ayllus, and documented oral traditions about the village's past and its sacred places.

Salomon's book, tentatively titled The Romance of the Precise: Andean Media and the Advent of the Alphabet, is built around the concept of the Andean village as an intellectual community. He believes that understanding the coexistence of the alphabet with Andean media, which are completely different in principle from Old World writings, will "help us understand just how varied are the 'technologies of intellect' through which peoples interpret and record their experience and reason out their social agendas.

Up to now, specialists in the history of writing have tended to shrug off systems which do not employ the "glottographic" principle, Salomon said, "that is, the principle of using visible symbols to stand for speech sounds. In Tupicocha, it is possible to trace the way in which villagers carried over from the Inca age a rich cord-based data technology particularly useful for doing the kind of work we do today with spreadsheets, and combined it with the glottographic writing of Europe. How they did so is demonstrated in village archives - hundreds of volumes accumulated while planning around stringent constraints of water supply, labor power, agro-pastoral cycles, and politico-ritual calendar."

Salomon's work examines the possibility that khipus moved toward flexible nonverbal schematics, a "deck" of periodically updated social symbols with which to play out possible "games" of resource use, or to record "rounds" already accomplished.

Affiliation at time of award:
Professor of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin


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