Rare Incan 'Calculators' Found in Peru

The ancient string-based devices were used to solve mathematical problems and assist in record-keeping.

Archaeologists working in Peru have discovered 25 well-preserved quipus, an ancient string-based device used to solve mathematical problems and to assist in record-keeping.

The find was made in the archaeological complex of Incahuasi, south of Lima, Alejandro Chu, reports Peru This Week. The items were found in ancient warehouses, or kallancas, and not in a funerary context as is the norm, making this a rather unique find. The placement of the quipus suggests they were used for administrative purposes. Incahuasi was one of the most important strategic cities built by the Incas in the valley of Lunahuana.

Quipu (also called "khipus" or "talking knots") typically consisted of colored, spun, and plied thread or strings from llama or alpaca hair. They aided in data collection and record-keeping, including the monitoring of tax obligations, census records, calendrical information, and military organization. The cords contained numeric and other values encoded on knots in a base-10 positional system. Some quipu had as many as 2,000 cords.

The Khipu Database Project describes quipus and how they worked:

Most of the existing khipu are from the Inka period, approx 1400 – 1532 CE. The Inka empire stretched from Ecuador through central Chile, with its heart in Cuzco, a city in the high Andes of southern Peru. Colonial documents indicate that khipu were used for record keeping and sending messages by runner throughout the empire. There are approximately 600 khipu surviving in museums and private collections around the world.

The word khipu comes from the Quechua word for "knot" and denotes both singular and plural. Khipu are textile artifacts composed of cords of cotton or occasionally camelid fiber. The cords are arranged such that there is one main cord, called a primary cord, from which many pendant cords hang. There may be additional cords attached to a pendant cord; these are termed subsidiaries. Some khipu have up to 10 or 12 levels of subsidiaries. Khipu are often displayed with the primary cord stretched horizontally, so that the pendants appear to form a curtain of parallel cords, or with the primary cord in a curve, so that the pendants radiate out from their points of attachment. When khipu were in use, they were transported and stored with the primary cord rolled into a spiral. In this configuration khipu have been compared to string mops.

Each khipu cord may have one or many knots. Leland Locke was the first to show that the knots had numerical significance. The Inkas used a decimal system of counting. Numbers of varying magnitude could be indicated by knot type and the position of the knot on its cord. Beginning in the 1970's, Marcia and Robert Ascher conducted invaluable research into the numeric significance of khipu, and developed a system of recording khipu details which is still in wide use today among khipu researchers. More recently, researchers such as Gary Urton have recognized the depth of information contained in non-numeric, structural elements of khipu.

Regrettably, many of these quipus were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, making this recent find all the more precious.

Article originally appeared on iO9.

The quipu was an Incan calculating device.

June, 18, 2012 --

Slashing through jungles searching for lost cities may be a thing of the past, now that a team from the University of Houston has developed a way to peer through even dense foliage to find signs of hidden ruins. The team used a laser-based light detection and ranging (LIDAR) system to find ruins blanketed by the forest in eastern Honduras. In 1526, conquistador Hernán Cortés heard tales of a white city, la Ciudad Blanca, hidden in the forests of Honduras. Explorers have searched the forest, called La Mosquitia, for centuries in vain. The LIDAR system may have found what generations of treasure-seekers overlooked. The system used more than four billion laser pulses to map La Mosquitia, the largest wilderness area in Central America. The image shows what looks like a central courtyard surrounded by structures. No one has ventured into the area yet to confirm the observations. And if this really is the legendary city, no one knows anything about the mysterious structure except that it exists. So it looks like the days of Indiana Jones are not yet over; there is still a job for machete-wielding adventurers to go out and find lost cities. And throughout history archeologists, explorers and thieves have trudged through the wilderness endeavoring to do just that.

Copán On the other side of Honduras from the recently discovered ruins, the Mayans built Copán, a city that some call the Athens of Mesoamerica because of its exquisitely carved sculptures. After 2000 years of occupation, the political structure of the city collapsed in the 800's A.D., possibly due to overpopulation and environmental collapse. Pollen samples show that farms around Copán had crept up the steep surrounding hillsides. This not only reduced the amount of wood for buildings and cooking fires, it also left the denuded slopes open to erosion and landslides. The area was never completely abandoned, but many of the finely carved statues fell and were buried in sediments from the nearby river. Some of the statues now now bear scars from where plows scraped against them as locals continued to work the land. Other carved stones from the region were re-purposed as building materials in the dwellings of the local farmers. The former beauty of the city was largely forgotten after the Spanish conquest. A few explorers sent back tales of the intricate artwork during the 19th century, including writer and diplomat John Lloyd Stephens and illustrator Frederick Catherwood. Their book "Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán" helped to popularize the ruins and turn it into an international tourist destination. While exploring the region, Stephens reportedly bought all of the ruins of Copán for $50, though he never capitalized on his investment.

Troy Copán suffered a slow slide into oblivion, but other lost cities died violent deaths. The blind poet Homer told of Troy, the great city-state laid low when Menelaus, king of Mycenean Sparta, went looking for revenge. Menelaus led a coalition of Greeks against Paris, the Trojan prince who kidnapped Helen, Menelaus' fantastically beautiful wife. By the end of Homer's tale, Greeks hidden in a wooden horse had sacked Troy, and Helen was on a ship bound for Greece. The ancient tales of Homer were thought to be nothing more than legends until until 1865 when English archaeologist Frank Calvert followed ancient clues to Hisarlik, Turkey. He dug a few trenches and uncovered artifacts that convinced him he was on the trail of Homer's heroes. Calvert's initial discoveries were soon overshadowed when he teamed up with the impetuous German amateur archeologist, Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann gouged through the artifacts and sediments of later settlements with a speed and lack of care that left modern archeologists aghast. He even tried to recapture the beauty of Helen by dressing his own young wife in gold and jewels discovered at the site. But for all his recklessness Schliemann found enough evidence to convince the world that Troy had been found. More recent geological studies and archeological excavations have confirmed that the site may well have been the ancient battlefield where Achilles was brought to heel, Odysseus lost his way, and Hector found that chariots can be a real drag.

Knossos Homer wasn't the only Greek with stories of lost cities. In 360 B.C., Plato wrote about Atlantis. The philosopher wrote that, although Atlantis had conquered many lands, it was brought to ruin in a single day and night. No one has ever proven if Atlantis ever existed or to which ancient civilization it referred. One of the top contenders is the Minoan civilization on Crete, which was destroyed in a single cataclysmic day. The Minoans, named for their king Minos, held sway over trade in the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age. But in the second millennium B.C. a volcano on the nearby island of Santorini unleashed one of the largest eruption in human history. Earthquakes and tidal waves leveled the Minoan capital of Knossos and deluged the island's farmland. The Minoans never recovered but their memory persisted in the region. The Romans remembered the island as the home of Minos and minted coins on the island depicting the Minotaur, the mythological bull-headed man who stalked Theseus in Minos' labyrinth. By modern times, the civilization itself had been lost in the labyrinth of time until Arthur Evans, an English journalist and scholar, appeared on the scene in the early 1900's . Before he could start digging, Evans had to help bring about peace between Crete's Muslim and Christian populations as the island struggled for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Evans used his power as a journalist to decry the massacres each side perpetrated and to influence the British Empire to step in and enforce order. Once the bloodshed had ended, Evans' workers uncovered an elaborate network of workrooms, living quarters, storerooms, and administrative centers. The sprawling complex was adorned with brightly colored frescoes. The British School at Athens offers a virtual tour of the site.

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Ciudad Perdida Augusto Berns at Machu Picchu was one of the many thieves who have sought to line their pockets by pilfering from the past. In the mountains near Santa Marta, Colombia, La Ciudad Perdida, Spanish for the lost city, lives up to its name. The city once housed up to 8,000 people and was the center of the Tairona civilization. It was mostly abandoned around the time of the Spanish conquest. The descendants of the Tairona kept quiet about the city to outsiders, although they continued to visit it themselves. The indigenous people's secret was safe until tomb raiders found the city in 1972 and began selling the Tairona's gold treasures and ceramics on the black market. The city was lost to the outside world again in 2003 when eight foreign tourists were kidnapped by the Marxist guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army. The guerrillas demanded investigations into human rights abuses by the government. By 2005 the area had been pacified and tourists were allowed back in.

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