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Indiana Jones and the Mystery Strings

I was never interested in History as a child. Dull school room text books and rote learning put me off the subject for years. The only historical concept I could tolerate were the Indiana Jones films, and that was many due to my fascination with the lead actor.

More recently though, I find myself tuning into documentaries on the ancient world, visiting the local museum to gaze at the artefacts and reading long articles on civilisations whose systems surpassed even modern day standards.

In the last few months, the New Scientist magazine has included a high proportion of reports and articles which focus on anthropology. This week, their main feature honed in on new developments in deciphering Inca methods of recording transactions and possibly their history too. Their hierarchical society of tributes and taxes, was controlled from a central location. People were able to farm their own plots of land, but their tribute system of taxes, also allowed for a distribution of necessities from central stores so that no one family went without basic requirements. The organisation of collections and distribution of produce involved careful management to ensure fairness for all ten million people within their extensive realm.

For many centuries, it was thought that the Inca’s did not have a written language. Scholars were mystified by their architectural designs and convoluted terrace systems for farming in mountainous regions. All they knew for sure, was that a particular caste within their society, were chosen and trained in the creation of Khipus (pronounced Key-poos). These were intricately knotted string systems, to keep records straight between the scattered communities. At first, all that could be deciphered was that different knots tied at different positions on a string length, acted a little like an abacus, in that a decimal system of one to nine, tied in positions to represent tens, hundreds, thousands and so on, could be seen.

In recent years, ethnographers such as Sabine Hyland, from St Andrews University, Scotland, has travelled to the most remote areas of what is now, Peru. After extensive negotiations, she was permitted access to two village Khipus, that are thought to be epistles created by local chiefs following a rebellion against the Spanish in the late eighteenth century. At this time, people were able to record the events in written language as well as tie the Khipu history, allowing some comparison to be made. With limited and supervised access, Hyland took detailed notes and photographs of the Khipus, each one having hundreds of attached knotted pendants to the main cords. She found that more than using different tied knots, and directional knots in differing positions, pendants were of different colours, textures, lengths and fibres. The complexity was astounding. The villagers referred to the Khipus as the ‘Language of Animals’, insisting that the animal fibres used were of great significance, as was the direction of ply.

It is obvious that even with this great discovery, it will take many more years of deciphering before more of the Inca Civilisation and language is understood. Theirs appears to be a highly tactile method of communicating, placing enormous emphasis on the sense of touch rather than pictorial representations. How then, would they have experienced the world about them, if the tactile elements of life were deemed more important than that of visual or sound? Could it be that spinning animal and plant fibres into string was easier, in such a vast and mountainous landscape, rather than evolving a language with parchment and ink?

There are few ancient mysteries left to confound modern scientists, but with so many variables to decrypt, I believe that this puzzle will keep the real Indiana Jones anthropologists busy for a long time to come. Perhaps it will provide fuel for another fictional conspiracy series.

Sam Nash is the author of the thriller series, The Aurora Conspiracies, available from Amazon at You can find her at or on Twitter @samnashauthor or Alternatively, you can download her free prequel novella series. Kindle: ePub:

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