Voices from the Incas’ past

Undergrad deciphers meaning of knots, giving native South American people a chance to speak

For centuries, Diego couldn’t be heard. A peasant who had lived in a remote village in the Inca Empire in the late 1600s, he existed only as a nameless number recorded in a khipu, a knotted rope system kept for census counting and bookkeeping.

But a discovery by Manny Medrano, a College junior who lives in Eliot House, has begun to reveal Diego’s secrets, details about not only the man’s identity and class status in his village, but also his way of life.

“It’s giving the Incas their own voice,” said Gary Urton, chair of the Anthropology Department and Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies, who guided Medrano in his research. “I could never figure out the hidden meanings in these devices. Manny figured them out, focusing on their color, and on their recto or verso (right-hand and left-hand) construction. This was the only case we have discovered so far in which one or more (in this case six) khipus and a census record matches.”