Deciphering the Signs of the Inka

Instead of writing, the Inka used a system of knots and cords to record information on devices called "khipus". Spanish chroniclers tell us that khipus were used to record everything from census records, to myths, songs, and calendars. While scholars deciphered the khipu number system in the 1920s, non-numerical khipu signs that might refer to words or concepts remain a mystery.

In 2015, Jon began studying Inka khipus using computational techniques he had learned in Computer Science and Applied Mathematics courses at Harvard. Harvard is home to the Harvard Khipu Database, a detailed compilation of all the Inka khipus available for study in the world (as of 2017, there are over 900 recorded khipus). Jon was excited by the opportunity to work with such a complex archaeological data source and make contributions to khipu decipherment.

For his PhD dissertation, Jon is empirically evaluating the main theories for how non-numerical Inka khipu signs worked. Specifically, he uses the Harvard Khipu Database and statistical modeling techniques to test whether or not signs were used in the same ways the theories propose. If the empirical evidence from the database corresponds with the theories, Jon's work will be the first instance of non-numerical Inka khipu sign decipherment. Stay tuned!