National Science Foundation support will enable Frank Salomon and an international team of colleagues to study one village's unique legacy of the ancient Andean graphic medium khipu. This patrimony is the Kaha Wayi or 'accounting house,' with the surrounding ceremonial precinct, in the central Peruvian village of Rapaz, at 4,120 m. over sea level. In Rapaz, as throughout the Andes, khipus or knotted-cord records formed the informational backbone of Inka-era politics. While in other places alphabetic script replaced the Andean medium, Rapaz is one of a very few villages which carried on using khipus for political administration into modern times (1932). Villagers no longer update the mass of cords draped behind their ritual table. They do, however, understand in detail the communal system of communal land tenure and herding which their khipus administered, and still practice khipu-related ritual as the hinge of their civic-political cycle. These continuities may make it possible to link specific cord attributes - including attached dolls and other iconic tokens - to qualities and functions, not just to numbers like those discovered by the pioneer khipu studies of L. Locke or M. and R. Ascher.

During 2005 fieldwork the Rapaz project will conserve and document this legacy in three ways. First, it will bring to bear expertise and software created in the NSF-funded Harvard Khipu Data Base Project, identifying detailed cord structures and registering them cord by cord in a computable format. (The number of cords is unknown because they are thickly piled, but the collection is estimated to contain some hundreds of khipu-like objects.) Computable registry will accelerate recognition of associations among signs. Small samples of fiber for AMS radiocarbon dating will clarify chronology. Archaeological survey will clarify construction sequence of the precinct. Second, a team of textile conservationists and a museologists will clean the khipus of fungal and insect damage, repair weakened cordage, improve storage conditions, and leave the patrimony in more secure condition. Third, ethnographic interviewing will gather Quechua-language terminology and technical or administrative knowledge surviving from the era of khipu use. The patterns of practice gathered ethnographically and from village archives will guide interpretation of patterns in khipu construction.

The wider impact of the study concerns both specialists and citizens generally. Patrimonial khipus help compensate for the fact that records from the Spanish viceroyalty after 1532 provide no key to how khipus worked. Khipus form a particularly important "lost script" problem because the khipu tradition, originating perhaps 600-1000 C.E., is pristinely independent of the technologies from which Eurasian and East Asians writings derive. Progress on khipu decipherment will therefore prove relevant to whether a basic unity underlies the ways humans make cultural action legible, or whether the paths of literacy diverged deeply from their beginnings.

For the Peruvian and international public the project offers innovative methods of protecting patrimony. Latin American nations hold archaeological sites under state protection, but Rapaz sees its khipu patrimony as communal, not national. And it forms part of a live part of a living, not prehistoric, ritual complex. The project accordingly works under an agreement with the Community, and entails training local spinner-weavers in the basics of textile conservation and is articulated with on-going traditional activity. Local trainees will become leaders in protecting the legacy, and guides to the increasing number of visitors.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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University of Wisconsin Madison
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