t the start, newcomers to Inka studies always ask, ‘‘Could they write?’’
Chalk in hand, I falter.The answers don’t sound reasonable: ‘‘Yes, but not
any way we can explain.’’ Or, ‘‘No, but they behaved like a literate
society anyway.’’
This puzzlement is as old as contact itself. Hardly had Spanish soldiers hit
the beach of what is now northern Peru, when Hernando Pizarro himself (1920
[1533]:175) was startled to see ‘‘Indians’’ recording in knots what seemed like
double-entry accounts for things the invaders had taken away. Yet the technique
for keeping records on knotted cords, called khipus, is one aspect of America that
Europe never really discovered. Later, when half a colonial century had gone by,
Spaniards seemed almost resigned to just not ‘‘getting’’ the Andean way of record-
ing. No early Spanish colonist is known to have made a concerted effort at learning
it, even though experience had taught Spanish judges to respect the accuracy of
Inka-style records.
‘‘Could they write?’’ was also an interesting issue to Andean natives who grew
up in the age of conquest. A lifetime after Pizarro saw his first khipu, an unknown
Quechua-speaking native of central Peru wrote the only known book which pre-
serves a pre-Christian religious system in an Andean language. It starts with these
If the ancestors of the people called Indians had known writing in former
Then the lives they lived would not have faded from view until now.
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