We know that the ancient Inca used systems of rope-based accounting called quipus or khipus. Beyond that, it seems like many scholars have come close to losing their marbles trying to sort them out.
Were they something like an abacus? Musical notation? A binary system like a simple computer code? How about this, from Wikipedia:
The Khipu Database Project (KDP), begun by Gary Urton, may have already decoded the first word from a quipu—the name of a village, Puruchuco, which Urton believes was represented by a three-number sequence, similar to a ZIP code. If this conjecture is correct, quipus are the only known example of a complex language recorded in a 3-D system.
Marcia and Robert Ascher, a married couple, he an anthropologist and she a mathematician, collaborated on on ethnomathematic projects, including a good hard look at quipus/khipus and came up with this :
For example, if 4s represents four simple knots, 3L represents a long knot with three turns, E represents a figure-of-eight knot and X represents a space:
- The number 731 would be represented by 7s, 3s, E.
- The number 804 would be represented by 8s, X, 4L.
- The number 107 followed by the number 51 would be represented by 1s, X, 7L, 5s, E.
This reading can be confirmed by a fortunate fact: quipus regularly contain sums in a systematic way. For instance, a cord may contain the sum of the next n cords, and this relationship is repeated throughout the quipu. Sometimes there are sums of sums as well. Such a relationship would be very improbable if the knots were incorrectly read.
Now comes news in the NY Times, “Untangling an Accounting Tool and an Ancient Incan Mystery” by William Neuman, that some quipus have been found in an excavated Incan storehouse in Incahuasi, Peru:
Says the Times:
Now the Incahuasi researchers hope that by studying the khipus and comparing them with others in a large database, they may find that the khipus discovered with the peanuts contain a color, knot or other signifier for “peanut.” The same goes for those found with chili peppers, beans and corn.
“We can look at how the chili pepper khipu differs from the peanut khipu and from the corn khipu in terms of their color and other characteristics and we can build up a kind of sign vocabulary of how they were signifying this or that thing in their world,” said Gary Urton, a leading expert on khipus who is studying the new trove with Alejandro Chu, the archaeologist who led the excavation.
“It’s not the great Rosetta Stone but it’s quite an important new body of data to work with,” he said, adding, “It’s tremendously exciting.”
Prof. Urton has been working on khipu for almost as long as I’ve been alive. He started his archaeological career helping out at Cahokia.
The Times article introduces us to Patricia Landa, who cleans and untangles the khipu. It sounds like she takes a reverse Marie Kondo approach:
“You have a very special relationship with the material,” Ms. Landa, 59, said. “I talk to them. I say, ‘Excuse me for disturbing your rest but you’re helping us to understand your ancestors.’ ”
There is something deeply moving and wonderful and absurd and human about spending years of your life trying to decipher how 15th century people counted beans and corn. What a worthy challenge to try and sort this out:
To the khipu guys and gals, I say: good luck.
You can read more about khipu/quipu and the Inca/Inka in my book, The Wonder Trail: True Stories From Los Angeles To The End Of The World, coming June 2016.
Franciscan monk Diego de Landa arrived in the Yucatan in the year 1541. He wrote up a description of the Mayan people he found there. He says:
These people also used certain characters or letters, with which they wrote in their books about the antiquities and their sciences; with these, and with figures, and certain signs in the figures, they understood their matter, made them know, and taught them. We found a great number of books in these letters.
So: what did he do next?
Do you guess made put together a fantastic collection for posterity?
The answer is:
Since they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the devil we burned them all, which they took most grievously, and which gave them great pain.
What kind of jackass shows up in a place and the first thing he does is burn all the books? Even fellow missionaries thought de Landa was a little much.
To look at it from his perspective though? Just for one second? In his mind he was in a jungle where every single person was worshipping idols or demons or maybe even the Devil himself and bound for fiery Hell unless by a miracle their souls could be saved.
Supposedly — who knows if this is true, but this is a story — on like his first day in the Yucatan he was walking out in the sticks when he interrupted a human sacrifice, and the whole thing freaked him out.
Anyway: the total number of Mayan books that survived – codices is the more accurate word, I’m told, because they’re not bound like books exactly — the total number of Mayan codices is three. Maybe four. Dresden, Madrid, Paris, named for the city that had the dusty library where they were found. Maybe Grolier is authentic too, I refuse to weigh in, Grolier is named for a private club of book-collectors in Manhattan where it was exhibited after it was, allegedly, found in a cave in the 1970s.
Each of the codices has some amazing backstory. The Dresden Codex was underwater for awhile.
The story of how they figured out how to read Mayan is great. A bunch of wacky geniuses take on the world’s hardest crossword puzzle, where new clues are hidden in the jungle might be the logline.
The story is well told in this book.
Now that’s the way to go!
How about Cyrus Thomas?
Or amateur linguist Benjamin Whorf?:
(Don’t think for one second, by the way, that Whorf was letting all this distracting from his insurance work. From wiki:
He was particularly good at the job and was highly commended by his employers. His job required him to travel to production facilities throughout New England to be inspected. In one anecdote his arrival at a chemical plant is described in which he was denied access by the director because he would not allow anyone to see the production procedure which was a trade secret. Having been told what the plant produced, Whorf wrote a chemical formula on a piece of paper, saying to the director: “I think this is what you’re doing”. The surprised director asked Whorf how he knew about the secret procedure, and he simply answered: “You couldn’t do it in any other way.”
Another famous anecdote from his job was used by Whorf to argue that language use affects habitual behavior. Whorf described a workplace in which full gasoline drums were stored in one room and empty ones in another; he said that because of flammable vapor the “empty” drums were more dangerous than those that were full, although workers handled them less carefully to the point that they smoked in the room with “empty” drums, but not in the room with full ones. Whorf explained that by habitually speaking of the vapor-filled drums as empty and by extension as inert, the workers were oblivious to the risk posed by smoking near the “empty drums”
Whorf got himself mixed up in the Hopi Time Controversy, a dispute about whether the Hopi language suggests a whole other way of conceiving/perceiving time, whether the Hopi walked around in some tripped-out timeless cognitive condition.
As I know many Helytimes readers are quite tired of that subject let’s just agree it’s pretty badass to have your own law in Uto-Aztecan linguistics and go back to Coe.
How about another enthusiastic amateur, John Teeple, who used to work out the Mayan calendar on his commute?
And what do we learn from all this reading? That the Mayans were deeply wack:
Another possible interpretation is that “she” represents the Aztec main temple, the Templo Mayor. In Mesoamerican literature, the temple is often referred to as “she,” since both men and women were sacrificed there and a considerable part of the main temple was dedicated to the Aztec rain god, who is often described as a female. The temple was uncovered in 1978 (three years after the album was released) after being buried beneath Mexico City for nearly 500 years.
On a more cynical note, in Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Young, entitled Shakey, the author asked Neil if his songs were autobiographical. Young replied, “What the fuck am I doing writing about Aztecs in “Cortez the Killer” like I was there, wandering around? ‘Cause I only read about it in a few books. A lotta shit I just made up because it came to me.”
Reader Amanda W. in Connecticut writes:
Much as I enjoyed your post about A Bachelor’s Mexico I think we’re all wondering: why did you need the letters of Cortes?
Great question Amanda. I needed them because I was writing about Mexico City. And I was trying to figure out the size of the city that was there before, Tenochtitlan.
I got distracted reading the incredible recollections of Cortes expedition veteran Bernal Diaz, but let’s pick up:
Tenochtitlan was the great city of the… well, Aztec is not the preferred nomenclature anymore. The great Charles Mann calls the people in charge of Tenochtitlan “the Triple Alliance.” They might’ve called themselves “Mexica.”
In the middle of a fifty-some square mile lake, there was this massive city.
How many people lived in Tenochtitlan?
212,500, says Professor Michael E. Smith of SUNY Albany in this article in the Journal Of Urban Studies.
But even he counsels cautious. He takes awhile to pause and talk about rank-size analysis:
In the 1950s and 1960s, geographers developed the technique of rank-size analysis to study the sizes of cities within nation-states.33 An empirical pattern was observed in a number of areas of the world in which the second-largest city has roughly one-half the population of the largest city, the third-largest city has one-third the population, and so on down the size scale. This distribution, known as the log-normal distribution, is illustrated by plotting city size (Y axis) against rank (X axis). When these variables are graphed using logarithmic scales, the log-normal distribution is expressed as a declining straight line. Two major kinds of deviations from the log-normal pattern have been noted for various nations and regions: primate distributions (in which the largest city is “too large” for the log-normal pattern) and convex distributions (in which there are “too many” very large cities). Much of the literature on rank-size analysis is devoted to exploring the causes and implications of deviations from log-normal distributions.34 Archaeologists seized on rank-size analysis as a potentially useful tool for analyzing settlement patterns, and they joined the discussion of the determinants of the various rank-size distributions. Most applications by archaeologists have been conducted on a regional scale, such as the Valley of Oaxaca and the Basin of Mexico, or the plains of Mesopotamia.35 A number of archaeologists went beyond the limits of the method to address the distribution of the sizes of tiny settlements that were not central places.36 To summarize the findings of geographers, anthropologists, and archaeologists, log-normal distributions tend to be found in large urban systems with a long history of commercial and demographic interaction among central places.
The great Charles Mann again:
Tenochtitlan dazzled its invaders – it was bigger than Paris, Europe’s greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like yokels at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. Boats flitted like butterflies around the three grand causeways that linked Tenochtitlan to the mainland. Long Aqueducts conveyed water from the distant mountains across the lake and into the city. Even more astounding than the great temples and immense banners and colorful promenades were the botanical gardens — none existed in Europe. The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that kept the crowded streets immaculate. (Streets that weren’t ankle-deep in sewage! The conquistadors had never conceived of such a thing.)
Cortes himself said:
The great city of Texmixitan is built on the salt lake, and from the mainland to the city is a distance of two leagues.
(a Spanish league at that time was 2.6 miles, the word originally meant the distance a man could walk in an hour).
The city is as large as Cordoba or Seville.
Cortes and his guys arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519. Two years later the whole place was destroyed.
Brief Digression about William Prescott:
The first American — talking United States American here — to really write a history of Cortes and the conquest of Tenochtitlan was William Prescott.
Prescott’s eyes were fucked up because he got hit with a crust of bread in the eyeball during a food fight when he was at Harvard. As far as I can tell he never went to Mexico. But he had been to Spain, he was pals with aristocratic Spaniards who sent him “eight thousand sheets of manuscript beautifully copied from the Spanish archives, all the original documents, diaries, letters, never yet published, never seven seen.”
So says Van Wyck Brooks, who describes Prescott like this:
He had an extravagant love of jolly parties. He talked with a joyous abandon, running over with animal spirits, laughing at his own inconsequences, with always some new joke or witty sally. He could be happy in more ways, in spite of his defective eyes, and happier in every one of them, than anyone else his friends had ever seen. One met him in the street, with his rosy air, with his gay blue satin waistcoat, tall, graceful, with light brown hair and a clear and ruddy complexion… One of his relatives, meeting him on the street, not long before his book appeared, urged him to undertake some serious task. It would be so good for him. It would be more respectable than leading this unprofitable life.
… He did not like to get up in the morning, and had to instruct his servant, the faithful Nathan, to pull away his bed-clothes. He did not like to work. He had to make bets with his secretary that he would write a certain number of pages or carry out some other resolution… When he broke too many resolutions, he introduced into his reckoning sets of fixed exceptions, amendments on amendments; then he scored them all off and opened a new account. By this means, and others, he made himself a causist, able to comprehend the Spanish mind.
Anyway. Prescott wrote a monster History of Ferdinand and Isabella, and then he took on the History Of The Conquest of Mexico.
Here’s what Prescott has to say about Tenoch, which gives a pretty good sense of his vibe:
Prescott’s history came out in 1843. When the US Army stormed Mexico City three years later a bunch of the officers had copies with them.
I prefer Bernal Diaz:
who rode with Cortes and saw Tenochtitlan with his own eyes in 1519. Fifty years or so later he dictated what he remembered.
Here’s what Bernal Diaz says he saw when they crossed the causeway into Tenochtitlan:
In Tenochtitlan, they had their own Hollywood:
What really impressed Diaz though was the shopping:
One unique item:
Well, things went downhill from there.
If you pull out some illustrations from the Florentine Codex, you can read it like a comic book.
Things fall apart, basically:
Montezuma gets killed — Diaz says by his own people while he was trying to give a speech:
They chucked his body:
The Spanish are driven out into the cactus lands:
There was a guy, Diaz says, who claimed to Cortes that he knew how to build a catapult. Turns out he didn’t. Cortes was piiiiiiiiiiiiissed.
Maybe ninety days of continuous fighting, Diaz says.
This sounds horrifying:
Geez. Even Diaz, who’d seen plenty already, says he came pretty close to losing it:
Why did Bernal Diaz write this book? I don’t know enough about 16th century Spanish or Latin American publishing to speak to that. He says at the beginning that he’s poor and maybe he can leave something to his descendants this way. Maybe it was a like a pop war hero bestseller like American Sniper or Lone Survivor.
Here’s what he says happened to Cortes:
Very last words in the book:
I wonder if he was.
That’s the story of Tenochtitlan. On its ruins arose Mexico City. The big cathedral is right on top of where the rubble of the Templo Mayor was buried.
The cathedral’s off-center, sinking, because the ground underneath is soft. There was a fifty mile lake around it once.
Thanks for writing, Amanda!
(I have no idea if I’m allowed to put up whole chunks of books like this without permission. The Florentine Codex is online and free here, and if there are any descendants of Bernal Diaz out there lemme know, I’ll paypal you a couple bucks.)
may I recommend:
Never read the Game Of Thrones books. Don’t know why, that specific kind of nerddom is not my kind. I bet George RR Martin has read this book. It is fucking incredible.
You are very busy so let me summarize it for you. I’m reading the translation by JM Cohen:
(I’m about to quote pretty generously from it. If any of the attorneys who read Helytimes could advise me on the legality of that, it’d be great. I think it’s ok, because I’m not making any money from this, and the whole point is to encourage you to buy this book.)
Bernal Diaz was eighty-four, blind, on an estate in Guatemala when he decided to dictate what he remembered from when he was twenty-seven, in 1519, when he went along with Hernan Cortés on an expedition to the interior of Mexico.
This is the best source, as far as I can tell, for what happened. Cortés wrote letters to the king of Spain, but if you read them you won’t come away with the impression you can trust him.
There exists also a sort of “Aztec” (not the preferred nomenclature) source: the Florentine Codex:
which has its own insane story, it was written by a Franciscan friar who learned Nahautal and went around listening to and summarizing oral histories. So this is written by a Spanish guy, too, history is written by the winners, but at least he was asking around.
I’m gonna steal from the drawings inked into the codex. If you want you can look at it yourself here or here:
Diaz says, when they landed:
There were five hundred and eight not counting the ships’ captains, pilots, and sailors, who amounted to a hundred,
sixteen horeses or mares, the latter all fit to be used for sport or as chargers.
Some Campeche Indians saw them and shouted castilan! castilan!
Like, “Castilian”? What the fuck? How did they know where they were from?
The natives communicated somehow that there were other Spanish people there.
So Cortés wrote down a letter, and bribed the natives with beads to bring it to them.
Some days later there arrived a man in a canoe:
As he leapt ashore, [he] exclaimed in inarticulate and clumsy Spanish: “God and the blessed Mary of Seville!”
This was Jeronimo de Aguilar. He was a Franciscan friar and he had survived a shipwreck, eight years before. Maybe fifteen other people had survived, too, including two women:
He, his companions, and the two women had then got into the ship’s boat, thinking they could reach Cuba or Jamaica. But the currents were so strong that they were thrown ashore in this country, where the Calachiones of the district had divided them up, sacrificing many of his companions to their idols. Some too had died of disease, and the two women only recently of overwork, for they had been made to grind corn. The Indians had intended to sacrifice him, but one night he had escaped and fled to that Cacique with whom he had been living ever since. Now, he said, the only survivors were himself and a certain Gonzalo Guerrero.
When Aguilar got Cortes’ letter he was ecstatic. He sent a letter to Guerrero, who lived several villages away.
Guerroro wrote back (paraphrasing): I have a face tattoo now. I have an Indian wife, and half-Indian kids. I’m with these guys now.
Aguilar says this is true, Guerroro was actually famously respected for his courage. Aguilar wrote him again, saying like “but what about your Christian soul?” Guerrero didn’t write back to that.
When Cortés heard this he exclaimed: “I wish I could get my hands on him. For it will never do to leave him here.”
Years later, it’s said, the dead body of Guerrero was found after a battle in Honduras. He got shot fighting with the local tribes against the Spanish.
Aguilar was happy to go with his countrymen. He told them how he had been entirely true to his vow of chastity even despite the local chief tempting him:
So says Washington Irving.
Aguilar could translate the local languages. The Spanish unloaded their ships:
When the horses came ashore they were very stiff and afraid to move, for they had been on board for some time. Next day, however, they moved quite freely… The best horses and riders were chosen to form the cavalry and little bells were attached to the horses’ breastplates. The horsemen were ordered not to stop and spear those who were down, but to aim their lances at the faces of the enemy.
Down the coast, they were spied on and then attacked by, says Diaz, the locals. This built into a massive battle:
I remember that whenever we fired our guns, the Indians gave great shouts and whistles, and threw up straw and earth so that we could not see what harm we had done them. They sounded their trumpets and drums, and shouted and whistled, and cried “Alala! Alala!”*
Just at this moment we caught sight of our horsemen. But the great host of Indians was so crazed by their attack that they did not at once see them approaching behind their backs…
When it was over, we bandaged our wounded with cloths, for this was all we had, and sealed the wounds of our horses with fat from the corpse of an Indian that we had cut up for this purpose. We then went to look at the dead that were lying about the field, and found more than eight hundred, most of whom had been killed by sword-thrusts, and the rest by cannon, muskets, or crossbows.
On the Spanish went.
On the morning of March 15, 1519 [Cohen says this date is incorrect, but that’s what Diaz says]:
many Caciques and important persons came from Tabasco and the neighboring towns and paid us great respect. They brought a present of gold, consisting of four diadems, some ornaments in the form of lizards, two shaped like little dogs and five like ducks, also some earrings, two masks of Indian faces.
These gifts were nothing, however, compared to the twenty women whom they gave us.
Among these women was one who ended up with the name Dona Marina. Diaz says you could tell just by looking at her that she was a princess and a “mistress of vassals,” though he doesn’t explain that.
Cortés doled these women out to his top officers. He gave Dona Marina to Alonso Hernandez Puertocarrero, but when he went back to Spain, Cortés himself impregnated her.
Dona Marina could speak several of the local languages, including one Jeronimo Aguilar understood, so between them they could translate. Over and over again she warned Cortés about traps he was going to fall into, plots he wasn’t seeing. Diaz says he’s sure he and all the rest of the Spanish would’ve been killed without her.
Cortes asked them where they procured their gold and jewels, and they answered from the direction of the sunset, saying “Culua” and “Mexico.”
Onward they go. A scout reports unsettling discoveries:
Some Indians come up to them to more or less surrender, and offer their allegiance. They’d decided Cortés, and the new guys, must be better than the man who was boss for five hundred miles, Montezuma:
Some of Cortés’ guys wanted to get back on the ships and go back to Cuba. “We’ve done enough!” was more or less their argument.
Cortés says, “Fine. Go ahead. Get on a ship. I’m not stopping anybody.” They’re kinda confused. Nervously a few of them get on a ship. They start getting ready, and are just about to leave, when Cortés drags them all back. Cortes is like “you assholes. You’re not going anywhere.” Just to make sure, says Diaz:
It’s time to go. Cortes gives a final speech, and he rounds up 200 of his new allies to help:
Time to go inland:
Along the way, they meet the locals, who all tell them more about Montezuma:
Different methods of religious conversion are discussed, and the terrifying hound:
Strange discoveries, the bones of a giant:
Montezuma, meanwhile, was freaking out:
Diaz says they got to the town of Cholula – maybe twenty thousand people, who are not sure what to make of what’s happening. The Spanish round up the nobility of the town in the central square, and then, on the signal of a gunshot, they start massacring them all.
Diaz says this was all justified:
On the Spanish go. By now they have a growing mob of natives with them.
The Spanish climb over the ridge. And when they saw what was down there, Diaz says:
We were astounded… Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not a dream… it was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.
Next time on helytimes: the city of Tenochtitlan.
*Several times in his letters Cortés describes native temples as “mosques,” mezquilas. Kind of interesting. The Spanish had been fighting the Islamic Moors of North Africa for seven hundred years. Recent historians of all this consider this “Reconquista” important context for how Cortés and his guys did their thinking.
Helytimes readers – hey guys – will no doubt have noticed a decline in the quantity (but not quality?) of posts here lately. That’s because the deadline for my book keeps creeping up on the calendar.
That project’s got me pretty well busy, among other things with research. Today, for instance, I stopped by the Central Library in downtown LA to get my hands on a copy of Hernan Cortes’ letters to the Spanish king.
While I was in the “history of Mexico” section, a colorful volume attracted my eye:
Most interesting might be the handwritten edit I found inside:
Other books by Boye de Mente:
From his wikipedia page: