Medrano, right, holds a model of the khipu knots the Incas
used to keep records. His professor, Gary Urton, sits in the
background. (Jon Chase/Harvard University )
Instead of partying during his spring break, Harvard undergrad
Manny Medrano stayed on campus and deciphered the meaning of an
ancient Inca khipu.
Khipus are knotted string devices used by the Inca people to
record information like censuses and tax records.
"For about a hundred years, researchers have understood that
many of these artifacts there's about 1,000 of these khipus
still in existence today encoded mathematical data," Medrano,
21, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.
"Kind of like an ancient Excel spreadsheet."
But Medrano discovered that the ropes may, in fact, contain
far more than just numbers.
Their complex colour system, he said, appears also to represent
more complex narrative information like names, geography and history.
His findings will be published in the January edition of the
'A Rosetta khipu, if you will'
It all started when the mathematics major took an archeology
class with Gary Urton, chair of the Harvard's anthropology department
and an expert in pre-Columbian studies.
Urton told the class about a recent discovery of six khipus
that appeared to match up with information collected in a written
Spanish census of 132 Indigenous villagers in a coastal Peruvian
model of Inca khipu knots is pictured. There are only about
1,000 of these record-keeping string devices left in the world.
(Jon Chase/Harvard University )
By comparing the khipus to the document, Urton hoped to unravel
more of the meaning behind the knotted ropes.
"What we've been looking for in those roughly hundred years
of research has been to try to find a match a Rosetta khipu,
if you will between a Spanish document and a set of these
knotted artifacts," Medrano said.
Medrano volunteered to help with the research over his spring
Then one day, alone in his dorm room, he had his Eureka moment.
Not only did the knots line up with the numbers in the written
census but the colours appeared to represent the names of
"The matching game that was happening here was to try to count
and grasp how many Felipes there are, how many Joses, and then to
see if there's a match between that and some form of the construction
of these khipus."
'It's really about reversing and pushing back
the course of history, in that the winners have always
written it, and this is an opportunity to reverse that
- Manny Medrano, Harvard student
What's more, he suspects the style and direction of the knots
may indicate other information about the villagers, such as their
class and status in society.
"So these weren't anonymous faces that we're faced with,"
"Instead, what we're perhaps looking at is a census document
in strings and knots that could encode and identify and categorize
Medrano has since switched his minor to archeology and plans
to pen a thesis next year that combines the applied mathematics
and the archeological components of his research.
"We are trained from an early age that math and language are
two discrete worlds, and these artifacts really break that boundary,"
But what really excites him is the opportunity to learn more
about the history of the Inca as told from their own perspective.
"It was a moment of great discovery, but also a moment of
realization these studies and this field is something that's so
much larger than me or any single person," he said.
"Because it's really about reversing and pushing back against
the course of history in that the winners have always written
it, and this is an opportunity to reverse that path."
Ethnohistory reflects the wide range of current scholarship inspired
by anthropological and historical approaches to the human condition
around the world, but with a particular emphasis on the Americas.
Of particular interest are those analyses and interpretations
that seek to make evident the experiences, organizations, and
identities of indigenous, diasporic, and minority peoples that
otherwise elude the histories and anthropologies of nations, states,
and colonial empires.