"The Ancient Peruvians Had a Written Language," By George Potter
One of the most common misconceptions among the LDS community is that the ancient Peruvians had no written language. However, the opposite appears to be true. Indeed, the latest research on the subject suggests that the Peruvians had a language with twice as many characters than any other written language in the ancient Americas. The Spanish chronicler Fernando de Montesinos recorded in his Memorias Antiguas Historiales y Políticas del Perú (1642) that the ancient people of Cuzco [Peru] knew how to read and write.[i] He noted that the ancient Peruvians used banana leaves to record their writing. Since Book of Mormon explorer Arthur Kocherhans and I both believe that Cuzco was known as the City of Nephi during Book of Mormon times, this information is significant to students of the sacred book.
In his book Voices from the Dust, David Calderwood cites another early Spanish chronicler in Peru. David writes: "Poma de Ayala wrote that a few chroniclers believed that some of the Indians [in Peru] were descendants of Jews because many looked like Jews; i.e. they wore beards, were blond and had blue eyes. Poma de Ayala observed that the Indians had what appeared to be the 'Law of Moses' and they knew how to read and write."[ii]
The Peruvians hammered gold plates since 1900 B.C. Gold plates are difficult to engrave (Jacob 4:1), and since banana trees cannot grow in the cold climate of Cuzco (attitude 10,500 feet) and must be imported from the Amazon, it seems that the Incas needed to find a readily available material on which to write. A material that isabundant throughout the Andes is alpaca wool. For this reason, it is believed that the Incas adopted another form of writing, the unique practice of using strings and knots called quipus.
The Spanish Chronicler Cobo wrote: "By these recording devices and registers they [the Peruvians] conserved the memory of their acts, and the Inca's overseers and accountants.... On explaining their meaning, the Indians that know them related many things about ancient times that are contained on them.[iii]
"Many accounts exist of 'quipu keepers' reading history from the quipus. Unfortunately, the Spanish priests of the conquest realized that some of the quipus were considered sacred by the Peruvians. In response, the priest had them all destroyed. Thus, both the ancient form of writing on leaves and the use of quipus were lost to the world. In my opinion, the loss of the ancient Peruvians writings on leaves and the destruction of the quipus was a direct fulfillment of Jacob's prophecy:
"But whatsoever things we write upon anything save it be upon plates must perish and vanish away; but we can write a few words upon plates, which will give our children, and also our beloved brethren, a small degree of knowledge concerning us, or concerning their fathers-."(Jacob 4:2).
The gold plates of the Book of Mormon were brought forth from the earth in the early 19th century. Since then, archaeologists have found in graves and archaeological digs 700 quipus, 22 of which are now being decoded at Harvard University. Both the Book of Mormon plates and the seven hundred unearthed quipus remind me of Isaiah's declaration:
"And thou shalt be brought down, and shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be, as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the round, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust." (Isaiah 29:4) Personally, I can't wait until the symbols of the quipus are decoded. What wonders will be found on this unique writing media!
Harvard University archaeologists and MIT computer scientists are currently using supercomputers to decode the meaning of the quipu knot system. The knots provide 128 possible permutations multiplied by 24 different colors. Thus the code used by the quipu writers provided 1,536 separate units of meaning. This compares to the estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Sumerian cuneiform signs, and double the number of signs in the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians and the Maya of Central America.[iv]
[i] David G. Calderwood, Voices from the Dust: New Insights into Ancient America, (Austin: Historical Publications, Inc., 2005) 288.
[ii] Ibid., 285.
[iii] Bernabe Cobo, History of the Inca Empire, translated by Roland Hamilton, (Austin, University of Texas, 1996, 1996), 231-32.
[iv] John Noble Wilford, "String and Knot, Theory of Inca Writing," New York Times, 12 August 2003.