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Multimodality is Old News: The Incas and Khipu

I have been off the grid for a bit, but more importantly, I have been on vacation.

With some old and some new friends, I hiked the Inca Trail through the Andes mountains from outside Cusco, Peru to the oft-photographed Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu and its location were impressive—as expected. The trek, however, which covered about 25 miles of elevation gains of up to 13,000 feet at Dead Woman’s Pass and losses and gains again across several passes, was the personally satisfying portion of the trip.

The following two photographs show a bit of the extent of this trek: The first, where we were going on Day 2, and the second from the other side while atop the next mountain range still on Day 2. We continued hiking that day.

While trekking we were led by Peruvian guides Marco and Roger, as well as hosted by 18 porters who packed and prepared all of our daily needs (amazing!). At each pass, Marco discussed Incan history with us (punctuating the tales with some great punchlines). At one particular pass, Marco impressed upon us the expanse of the Incan empire, which in the 1400s extended across several current South American countries and was the largest South American pre-Columbian empire. Food, supplies, building and expansion plans, astronomical predictions, and military commands were all transported across this terrain by chasquis (runner messengers) at a much quicker pace than we were keeping. (The trek had been run in 3:45 and we were taking four days!) Impressive as just that is, our guide said that at one point, the chasquis’ tongues had been cut off so that the secrets of the empire could not be shared. (I haven’t been able to corroborate this yet. If someone has a source, please let me know.)

So how did they do it? Without tongues, the only other reasonable alternative to expect was that these runners carried some type of text—a large scroll or a tiny printed words on coco leaf (implausible, but go with me). Well, we’d be wrong in such an assumption. Apparently, the largest pre-Columbian empire built stone cities with precision, expanded their reign across cultures, and managed their empire without a formal writing system.

As one of my students used to say, “Let’s let that percolate.”

Without a writing system, are texts possible? Are printed or scribed messages possible? In what ways do we communicate without oral language and without printed language? Body language is a possibility. Perhaps chasquis doubled as pantomimes. Perhaps they committed entire building, agricultural and military plans to memory and redrew them—without written instructions—with scale and precision. Could that be exact enough? Other than a linguistic system, could any system of symbols or communication be exact enough? Apparently, yes.

In place of written documents, chasquis carried with them wound up strings of various number and color. It was on these khipu (Quechuan for knots) that the empire rode.

An Inca Quipu from the Larco Museum in Lima. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Author: Claus Ableiter

It has been deduced that the various types of knots, positions and string lengths communicated mathematical information. However, much more information was carried in the khipus, as entire histories could be told by a reader of a khipu. Unlike khipus, the readers of khipu are long extinct. At the Khipu Database Project at Harvard University, researchers are working to collect an electronic database of khipus around the world, noting the characteristics of various aspects common across khipus from the final twist and end treatments to the type of fiber and string direction. With this information, researchers hope to one day break this code.

We do and always have communicated through several modes, which Dictionary.com kindly reminds us is:

mode, noun /mōd/, modes, plural

  • A way or manner in which something occurs or is experienced, expressed, or done
    • - his preferred mode of travel was a kayak
    • - differences between language modes, namely speech and writing

With the dominance that speech and writing have on the ways we communicate (as in the example), we often forget the systemized knowledge that we have about other modes of communication. We may not have the knot knowledge of the Incans, but we know that when something is bolded it is emphasized or vectors leading from one concept down to another communicate a sequential or significance order. And this isn’t because bolding means emphasis inherently. Instead, we have—as a large post-Columbian empire, if you will—a series of meanings we attribute to the companion modes of speech and writing.

In the 21st Century, access to the production of those modes is closer to our fingertips than ever before. With a click of the mouse and an Internet connection, I can use image, color, video, sound. Each of these have a system of socially-constructed meanings associated with their use. Consider something as simple as the choice of font–the hundreds of options that just years ago were not available. What can be communicated in the form our letters take—their bulkiness, their curve, their density. Consider Poem Script from designer Paul Ale:

Poem Script from Sudtipos Foundry on Vimeo.

Multimodality is not new, but maybe with the increased availability to these companion modes, we can form a new appreciation for the considerations writers should take when composing. Formatting is no longer icing on the cake. Formatting—the color, style and look of the written composition—can begin to be appreciated as inherent to the message much like the type, color and position of a knot on a string once was to the Incans.

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One thought on “Multimodality is Old News: The Incas and Khipu”

  1. The rocky cliffs of Navajo Sandstone that surround my home in Southern Utah are covered with ancient petroglyphs. Their meaning has been speculated upon, over and over. To me they are a fascinating ancient communication. A true testament that writing remains, long after the readers are gone. The need to format communication is powerful. I see it on these rock faces, and in the decorative smart phones that students carry around. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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