THE UNREAD LEGACY:
AN INTRODUCTION TO TUPICOCHA’S KHIPU
PROBLEM, AND ANTHROPOLOGY’S
I
n 1994, a fluke of ethnographic luck brought me face to face with the officers of
Tupicocha village, Peru, as they draped themselves in skeins of knotted cords
whichconstitutethemostsacredoftheircommunity’smanytraditionalregalia.
Villagers call these quipocamayos, a cognate of the ancient Quechua word for a
khipu master, khipukamayuq.The core Quechua sense of khipu is ‘knot.’ Theyalso
call the cords equipos, or caytus (the latter deriving from a Quechua term mean-
ing ‘‘wool thread, spool of wool, ball of wool, piece of cloth, string, cord, etc.’’
according to Jorge Lira (1982 [1941]:127).
Khipus are usually associated with Inka archaeology. Although ‘‘ethnographic’’
khipus for herding or confessing are known, historians treat the political role
of khipus as a chapter that closed early in the colonial era. Tupicocha’s cords
represented an unsuspected continuity and, with it, an unexpected chance to see
how this pristine graphic tradition functioned in political context. That lucky en-
counter provides an entry into a central problem of Andean studies: the manage-
ment of complex information in a state-level society lacking ‘‘writing’’ as usually
understood.
Tupicocha provides no Rosetta stone. But it does open an ethnographic and
ethnohistorical window on how the cord system articulated political life as orga-
nized by corporate kinship groups. It also provides some clues about specific de-
tails of the code. In following them up, I will suggest how an ‘‘ethnography of
writing’’—Keith Basso’s term (1974)—must be extended to put systems grosslydif-
ferent from alphabetic ‘‘writing’’ onto an even heuristic footing with more famil-
iar ones.
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