Forgetting The Masterful Inca: Part 1

 Image: Oski Rodriguez (flickr)

Image: Oski Rodriguez (flickr)

This is the first article of many that I wish to write regarding Inca culture. I've become absolutely fascinated with Inca history. I'm certainly not an expert on this subject. Do I have any history or anthropology buffs out there reading this article? Feel free to comment or critique my Inca knowledge.

Tawantinsuyu was the Quechua name for the Inca Empire. Tawantinsuyu literally means 'the four suyus (corners)'. A Sapa Inca (the One King) would sit on his throne, tilt his head, and look out four corners over all he ruled. Those four kingly 'lines of sight', or directions, with the center being the throne, acted as divisions of the four suyus.

 Image: tails24k (deviant art)

Image: tails24k (deviant art)

The administrative, political, and military center of the Inca Empire was located in Cusco, in modern-day Peru. Most people know of Machu Pichu located near Cusco. However, the Inca Empire was one of the largest in the history of our world. Tawantinsuyu traded throughout South America, subsequently ruling the continent by its trading activity. Inca rule lasted from the late 1200's until 1572. 

The origin of the Inca culture is quite surprising, and very interesting.  Archeologists at Cusco argue that the Inca were merely a highly evolved pre-Colombian indigenous group. They believe in a stepped approach to the development of the Inca society.  But the archeological facts are quite different. Inca were a developed culture from the get go. They had advanced knowledge of astronomy, architecture, mathematics, construction... In fact it's hard to find an area of science that the Inca didn't touch upon. In the archeological record, Cusco appears suddenly, from scraps of poorly constructed ceramic shards to BOOM a majestic city full of unbelievable marvellous things, including construction using advanced methods. 

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For example, consider the famous royal estate of Machu Picchu as a surviving example of Inca architecture and construction methods. Ahead of its time, in fact, advanced to our time, the rock used in the original construction appears to be poured into molds and then fit together. If you visit Cusco Peru, you can see the Incas' amazing ability to build walls of perfectly matched stones. This picture shows Cuzco's famous 12-sided stone (center). The stones in this wall fit so perfectly, that you can't place a coin between them (see image above.) Intellectuals to this day question, not just how they constructed such walls, but how could they move such large stones with precision? (I'll write more on this subject later.)

As a Canadian travelling in South America, I was ill-prepared, historically, to understand the Inca culture. Sadly, we never learned these things in detail when I was growing up in Canada. Incorrectly, I assumed Inca, Aztec, and Mayan, were the same civilization. Even though the groups most likely interacted, the Inca Empire was significantly larger, masterfully ruling, directly or indirectly, most of South America. That is when I encountered ‘eurocentric’ thinking in Canada’s public education system. This is perhaps the largest, most advanced civilization known to man, and not once had our history books touched upon the Inca. Government censorship is a shame really; a paradox of enlightened thinking.

 Image: https://cocavscocaine.wordpress.com/

Image: https://cocavscocaine.wordpress.com/

Anyhow, let’s cast propaganda aside and get on with the facts. The Inca society appears dramatically and spontaneously in the archeological record. This also fits the legends-oral history-surrounding the original Inca kings. Consequentially-in their lust for gold- the Spanish conquistadors destroyed much of the Inca civilization and memory. They employed annihilation tactics-destruction of culture, religious temples, and persecution-as a strategy to acquire knowledge of the location of Inca treasures.

The conquest of the Inca met with retreat and repression. In their crazed greed, the Spanish peeled the flesh from the skin of the people, and even then, the Inca refused their queries. The Inca that were not captured, murdered, or tortured, fled to the jungle to hide from their conquerors. Today numerous myths propagate indigenous tribes along the Eastern Andes that are direct descendants of the historical event. Mothers placate sons and daughters with vivid ‘monster’ stories warning their children not to travel to certain areas because of dangerous curses and such. Could the ‘monster’ they speak of be the Spanish conquistadors? 

 Image: Satania (deviant art)

Image: Satania (deviant art)

What remains today of Inca society is often reclaimed by the overgrowth of jungle. The history lies in areas difficult to explore, and shielded for eternity, by the dense curling fog of the upper Andes. The Inca highway is lost. In present day, we can't, or don't, walk along the high paths once frequented by the Inca runners. In addition, historically, we are hampered by the way of the Inca written culture. We are left to interpret their culture from the perspective of the Spanish priests who wrote, albeit with much prejudice, the Inca stories they witnessed and transcribed. Often stories were created or modified to preserve the life of the storyteller (methinks).

 Image: Kristina Kajipe (flickr)

Image: Kristina Kajipe (flickr)

Hope remains, in the Quipus, sometimes known as “khipus” or talking knots. Quipu's are known as recording devices developed by the Inca civilization. A Quipu usually consists of colored, spun, and plied thread, or strings, made from cotton or lama fiber. Often referred to as "string mops", the cords contained values, often numeric, encoded by knots in a certain positional system. A quipu could have only a few or up to 2,000 cords. Each cord containing a few or hundreds of knots… You can see the relationship database size adding up here, yes? 

(Note: I believe Quipu's look very similar to the Nazca lines. This similarity is also repeated in many Inca gold sculpture. Could the length and departure of the lines of these three items have significance? The imagination runs wild as to the implications of such a truth.)

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For the Inca, the Quipu system apparently aided in collecting data and keeping records, ranging from monitoring tax obligations, properly collecting census records, calendrical information, and military organization. Or so we think. Remember, the info we have on the subject is vastly tainted by a conquering nation. Spanish priests, also speak of Inca authorities telling vast stories as the Quipu knots would run thru their fingers. Not unlike how people today use the rosary or prayer beads. Such a system is used by members of various religious traditions-Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Sikhs, Islamic, Bahá'í and Dhikr (Islam). Beads (knots) mark the repetitions of prayers, chants or devotions. Essentially, this similar practice is interpreted by historians to be the method employed by Inca scholars. I believe that researching the origin of this practice could enhance our knowledge of human history. Anyhow, essentially, the Inca would read the Quipu's like we would read a book, except the Inca beads/knots/rosary number into the thousand, and thus perhaps millions of data points per Quipu. What person could memorize such a task? An advanced human-for sure! Alternatively, there has to be an explanation that we are missing.

We really don't know the extent of the information contained in Quipu's. Modern man (using the expression lightly), like many things Inca, has not been able to de-code this fascinating and advanced method of ‘writing’ communication. In addition, the Spanish conquest destroyed most of the Quipu's in existence. Thankfully, there is an effort to preserve and collect Quipu's today. The ones that humanity saved are documented, and many stored at Harvard University. 

Are you good at puzzles? Do you live for Suduku or crosswords? Why not take a shot at solving the centuries old Quipu mystery? The quipu data is available online at Harvard University http://khipukamayuq.fas.harvard.edu . In fact I believe there is a financial and prestigious award for finding the secret to this amazing Inca writing system.