What Knots to Wear

Statastico has made some New Year’s resolutions:

1. I will update my blog five times a week.
2. I will try my darndest to provide at least one original statastic per week.
3. I’ll recommend some music that may help soothe your statastics-starved brains.

What does this mean to you the avid reader? It means that coming up with a clever idea, incisive analysis, statastics and graphics every day is more than a full time job… and that Statastico can’t do it alone. Rest assured, Web 2.0 - also known as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year - caught up to statastic! and churned out swivel.com.

Swivel is the Flickr of statistics and its user-generated (and statistically suspect) stats and graphs will challenge any of you bold enough to distinguish between correlation and causation. But it’s still good fun, and you have to admire wide-eyed entrepreneurs who staked their livelihood on the public’s thirst for more meaningless statistics.

Potosi MinesSo what has Statastico been up to? Glad you asked. Statastico was doing “research,” exploring the far reaches of the Incan Empire - from the apex of their power in Machu Picchu, to their tragic fate in the silver mines of Potosi, Bolivia at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors.

Seeing the quality of their stonework, the remnants of their agricultural prowess, and 500 year-old terraces still in use today makes one marvel that Pizarro so easily conquered this vast empire. The Incas governed a population of more than 15 million without the benefit of steel or the wheel. More shockingly, the Incas were the largest empire in the history of humankind without an alphabet or a written language (see chart below).

Or were they?

In January, Wired Magazine reports that there is an attempt to decipher Incan khipu textiles. The khipu may look like adornment, but these series of knotted strings were long assumed to be a type of abacus for recording census data. New research at Harvard, however, is exploring how the styles of knots, twists and colors in the string may form the basis of an Incan alphabet.

So far Harvard’s research is inconclusive, but their new approach applies network analysis based on the theory that different khipu textiles may refer to one another (much like Google PageRank). For any of you cryptophiles, Harvard has published the raw data here for you to noodle over.

In the interest of living up to Time Magazine’s Person of the Year honor, I thought I would offer some suggestions:

  1. 1. Many of the researchers focus on the khipu as stories to be handed down as a historical record. One of the advantages of knots as a form of a communication is its reusability. What if the khipu were more like portable blackboards constantly being written, erased, and rewritten in order to quickly send messages throughout the empire? This would change the nature of the translation. While researchers might be focused on translating a history book, they may be looking at the equivalent of ancient knot-based emails.
  2. .
  3. 2. Although the raw knot data seems pretty conclusive it might be worth enlisting the help of some folks who are so brilliant at mathematics that they created an esoteric sub-discipline known as knot theory. Here’s an example of some of the fun problems the folks at Williams College are considering: “Is the trefoil the only nontritangent knot? (A knot is nontritangent if there is a realization of that knot that does not have any planes tangent to the knot at three or more points.)”

In any case, I applaud Wired Magazine for running this article. Any time you can cross anthropology and google search algorithms, you have my attention. Now it time for the person of the year (you - not me) to decipher the khipu and save the Incas from the ignominy of being the most extensive empire without a written language.
Music Note Border 2While you’re busy untangling the khipu alphabet, have a listen to the Munich-based Notwist’s 2002 album Neon Golden: beepy, indie, minimalist, fuzz pop.

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Evidence of Writing in the 40 Largest Empires