It’s hard to picture civilization without writing to carry messages short-term across space and long-term across time. The limits imposed by human messengers for the former and oral traditions for the latter are daunting. These are reasons why the claim that American Indians had no written language was joined at the hip with the claim that the Americas were populated only by itinerant Stone Age hunter-gatherers with no need for land titles or means for recording them.
There were at least three sets of data that showed up the colonial claims as lies. In North America, wampum belts are remembered as a medium of exchange, early money. In fact, the patterns in the beadwork functioned as memory cues.
It is well accepted in modern times that the wampum memorialized important agreements. The oral traditions claiming that wampum beads could hold narrations of complex events are more controversial.
Moving south to the Yucatan Peninsula, the Mayan civilization communicated with glyphs that survive to modern times because they were carved in stone on public buildings. The Mayan codices that represented the portable version of Mayan writings were burned by the Spanish. Franciscan Bishop Diego de Landa Calderón made himself infamous with a written record of the barbarous act in 1562:
We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.
The bishop’s remarks made his order the best known to history, but the burning of Mayan writings continued apace. The last recorded destruction was in Nojpetén, Guatemala in 1697.
What remains of the Mayan libraries is four partial codices, three named for cities that harbor the stolen property: Dresden, Paris, and Madrid. One more turned up under bizarre circumstances and was only recently authenticated by some, but not all Mayan scholars. Dubbed the Grolier Codex for the place it was displayed for years, it is the only surviving codex curated in a place where surviving Mayans live, Mexico.
Mayan glyphs still survive carved on stone and so have not been forgotten, but there were other pre-Columbian writing systems only used on perishable media that have not survived the combination of time and purposeful Spanish destruction. Epi-Olmec, Mixtec, Zapotec, and—most importantly—the language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, were reduced to writing and lost.
Finally, the other great empire conquered by the Spanish, the Incas, maintained commerce and therefore communication though the most challenging geography in the Americas, the mountain trails of the Andes. It is a measure of those challenges that the Spanish, although inspired by the gold being looted from the Incas, never found a city the size of Machu Picchu, high above the Urubamba River in the Andes.
There is no question that the Incas kept their accounts on knotted strings called khipu (or quipu), but scholars are less certain that the khipu could be used to communicate words as well as numbers or abstractions as well as concrete representations.
Harvard Professor Gary Urton is one of the foremost living authorities on khipu. Harvard is the location of the Khipu Database, where the latest learning about the khipu is shared on the web. Urton counts himself among those who believe that the khipu were used for more kinds of communication rather than less.
Urton’s book, Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted String Records, points out that it’s possible to render matters simple to complex in exactly the manner data is stored in a digital computer, with zeros and ones.
Writing in a 2005 issue of Science, Urton and Carrie J. Brezine reported the results of a computer study of 21 Khipu in Puruchuco, an administrative center in modern Peru. The result of the computer analysis shows “the way in which census and tribute data were synthesized, manipulated, and transferred between different accounting levels.” Unless the computer was mistaken, those strings hold a bit more than simple numbers.
Renata Peters and Frank Salomon reported in Archaeology International that there are two known collections of khipu still in ritual use today. The contemporary citizens of San Cristóbal de Rapaz, Province of Oyón, Department of Lima, claim that the khipu contain records of the redistribution of communally produced crops. The ceremonial function of the khipu includes bringing the rain where it is scarce, and so khipu are considered to be communal patrimony.
The scientists date the origins of the ceremonial khipu to after the Spanish conquest, although, “(s)ome are up to 15m long. Colours, spins, torsions, and the many-plied constructions of cords are at least as complex as in Inca khipu, but knots play a much lesser part.”
The level of sophistication in khipu communications will remain speculative until scientists learn to read them. There is no controversy about the use of khipu as accounting devices, but how far the strings can speak beyond numbers is a matter of vigorous dispute.
British sociologist Sabine Hyland published the newest contribution to the debate in the June 2017 issue of Current Anthropology. She recognized the assertions of some scholars that “khipus served merely as memory aids, recording only numbers and comprehensible only to their makers.”
Hyland presents her analysis of two newly discovered khipu in support of her finding that the evidence of the khipus, “could constitute an intelligible writing system, accessible to decipherment.” Of the three troves of data available to modern science, khipu need more work than the Mayan codices or the wampum, but there is much work to be done on all three.
It may be hard to picture civilization without writing to carry messages short-term across space and long-term across time—but it’s impossible to claim that the indigenous people of the Americas had no written language. The evidence has remained despite the European invasion turning indigenous cities from centers of learning to centers of disease and despite the Spanish practice of book burning on a massive scale.