I read a fascinating article the other day in my local English newspaper, The Tico Times. According to the story, for the past five years writer José León Sánchez, and philologist Ahiza Vega have been studying the regional written and spoken languages of several native tribes in Costa Rica during the colonial period. It was tough going. Then they stumbled upon the ‘Rosetta Stone,’ as Vega has called it.
Hidden away, deep in the archives of the US Library of Congress, is a book, ignored (we can only surmise) since the nineteenth century. On Indian Tribes and Languages of Costa Rica, written by U.S. researcher William Gabb in 1875, is not only a treatise on the tribes of Talamanca, but it may be the key to unlocking a mystery, because Gabb apparently asked a friend from Talamanca to translate his book––complete with a glossary––using a quipu.
Quipus (shown in the picture above, courtesy of The Tico Times), sometimes called talking knots, are recording devices the Inca and Aztec Indians used. They were made of spun Alpaca, llama, or cotton threads, and knots. The elaborate knots have been thought to be physical representations of numbers or history, no one knows for sure, because no one has been able to translate them before. According to the Tico Times article, “[quipus] require significant craftsmanship and skill, because each knot represents an idea. With many knots – or ideas – strung together, the resulting quipus were used to provide Inca emperors and other tribal leaders with vital information about the local population, water issues and military affairs.”
History shows that the Spanish destroyed the majority of Incan quipus because tribes used them to communicate with each other behind the conquistador’s backs. Now there are only a few left. Today only about 600 Inca quipus survive. Of those, only 15 or 20 were ever transcribed as Spanish documents, but no correlation has been found between a surviving quipu and a transcribed one.
The hope is that with Gabb’s book, the translated quipu, and the glossary, now researchers might have a chance to crack the code and that the other 600 might be translated. What history will we discover? It will be interesting to see if they can do it, and, it will be interesting to see what the Incas had on their minds way back then.