The Inca Had No Writing, Just Knots, Called Quipu

The Inca Had No Writing, Just Knots, Called Quipus

I spent many vacations between 1975 and 1992 visiting archaeological sites in Mexico. These included not only Mayan and Aztec, but also Totonac, Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Olmec, and whatever peoples built the ruins at Teotihuacán. As a result, I developed a feeling for the strengths and weaknesses of these Meso-American peoples. This year I plan to visit Peru and acquaint myself with the Incas and the various peoples who preceded them in the Andes.

So far my researches have turned up some interesting results. First of all, the Incas had no writing—as such. Instead, they used colored threads of llama, alpaca, or cotton with knots tied into the various strands called quipus. We know which knots stood for the various digits in their base-10 numbering system, but have no idea how they managed to convey any kind of qualitative content, such as “Look out for that Lord Manco: He’s trying to pull a fast one on you.”

In contrast, the Mayans had a hieroglyphic language which is just now being understood, as well as a vigesimal (base-20) numbering system which is relatively easy to understand.

Whereas the peoples of Mexico had no animals they could use to either ride or carry or pull weights—remember: they did not have the wheel!—the Incas developed their own draft animals by breeding guanacos into llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas. Llamas could not bear human riders, but they could bear up to one hundred pounds of weight on their backs; and, unlike horses, they were comfortable about climbing stairs at high altitude. When fighting the conquistadores, the Inca learned to set up ambushes at places where one of their mountain roads turned into stairs. As the horses bunched up afraid to take the stairs, the Incas atop the ridge line would tumble huge rocks down upon their enemy.

An Intihuatana, or “Hitching Post of the Sun” at Machu Picchu

An Intihuatana, or “Hitching Post of the Sun” at Machu Picchu

Who were more advanced, the Incas or the Pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico? My feeling is that they were both remarkable. Where the Mayans excelled in writing, the Incas were great architects and built thousands of miles of roads—many of which exist to this day despite all the earthquakes that have occurred since they were built.

A good example of Inca ingenuity are the Intihuatanas, or “Hitching Posts of the Sun,” that are found at various sites, such as at Pisac and Machu Picchu. An Intihuatana was a stone that was carefully cut so that the Inca savants could note when the sun was approaching a solstice. An excellent discussion of the stone at Machu Picchu, together with angles and measurements, appears in a scholarly article by Dieter B. Hermann, which was translated into English and appears on the net as an Acrobat PDF file. The stone at Pisac was heavily damaged when a camera crane fell on it during the filming of a beer commercial in 2000. The Inca ruins can survive earthquakes, frosts, and thaws for whole centuries … but apparently not wayward humans.



It’s the Shortest Month of the Year

It’s the Shortest Month of the Year

We’ve been hearing a lot about the Mayan Calendar lately, mostly in connection with The End of the World last week. Well, it didn’t end; and the Mayan Calendar goes on into a new baktun.

In the Haab’, or Mayan Solar Calendar, there are eighteen months of twenty days each. Where does that leave the other 5.25 days? To account for the difference, the Mayans created an intercalary five-day month referred to as the uayeb. Unlike other days in the Solar Calendar, the five days of the uayeb are thought to be a dangerous time (and so they are with the so called “Fiscal Cliff” looming).

According to Lynn Foster in Handbook to Life in the Ancient Mayan World, “During Wayeb, portals between the mortal realm and the Underworld dissolved. No boundaries prevented the ill-intending deities from causing disasters.” It was a time of fasting with abstention from sex and all celebrations. People avoided washing their hair or even leaving their huts during this time.

As we in the United States come to the end of another uayeb, I hope we are ready for what 2013 brings. Because, ready or not, here it comes….




Nope, Not Quite the End of the World

Nope, Not Quite the End of the World

I hope you’re enjoying all the craziness about the upcoming end of the world on December 21, 2012—according to the (snicker) Mayan Calendar. On that day, Martine and I will be driving to Palm Springs, where we will stand in flowing white robes, holding hands, on top of Mount San Jacinto. No, wait, actually we’ll be spending time with my brother Dan and his family, who are renting a house in PS for the holidays.

After my extensive travels to the Mayan area between 1975 and 1992—about eight trips in all—I managed to learn something about the Mayans and their calendar. The most important thing to note is that it recycles at the end of every 5,125-year cycle. According to some interpretations, one of those periods ends on Friday, though there is widespread disagreement among archaeologists on correlating the date to our own calendar.

The Mayans have already gone through a good deal more than twelve of those cycles, which they call baktuns. There are even longer cycles, called piktuns. The next piktun ends around October 13, 4772. There are even larger cycles called kalabtuns, kinchiltuns, and alautuns, which stretch millions of years into the future.

It looks to me as if the Mayans were planning to be around for a long, long time. A good deal longer than the morons who think the whole shooting match is over.

So let me be the first to wish you a happy 13th baktun of the current piktun. I hope all of you have a great

You can read more about the Mayan calendar at Wikipedia (here and here) and at Tikalpark.Com. Just remember that this is just another Moronic Divergence, or should I say Harmonic Convergence?