Steve Connor writes in the Independent (U.K.) newspaper that although the legendary Incas supposedly had no written language, they managed to create a huge empire which lasted from the second to the sixteenth centuries, with roads, granaries, warehouses and a complex system of government. Now anthropologist Gary Urton has discovered they used a computer-like binary code, based on knotted string.

These knotted strings, called khipu, were once thought to be only decorative objects, but Urton found they contain a seven-bit binary code that can convey more than 1,500 separate units of information. Khipu are elaborate, with several strings attached to a main cord. Each secondary string has other strings attached to it, and so on, which is basically the way computer code is constructed. Information may be conveyed not only by the arrangement of knots and choice of strings, but also by the color of the strings that are used. “They could have used it to represent a lot of information,” he says. “Each element could have been a name, an identity or an activity as part of telling a story or a myth.”

How can they be translated? “We need something like a Rosetta khipu and I’m optimistic that we will find one,” he says, referring to the stone found at Rosetta, in Egypt, which allowed scholars to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, because the same text was written on the stone in two other languages as well. He hopes the Spanish, who conquered the Incas in 1532, wrote down some of the khipu meanings in their own language. But it’s not likely: the Spanish recorded capturing an Inca native trying to hide a khipu which he said recorded the history of his homeland, “both the good and the evil.” They took the khipu from him and burned it.

Never underestimate the abilities of early cultures?we’re only now discovering some of their amazing achievements.

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