Manny Medrano (right), with guidance from Professor Gary Urton, has decoded the meaning behind khipus, an Inca bookkeeping method of knotted rope. Jon Chase/President and fellows of Harvard College. A college student might spend spring break. Making an archaeological breakthrough is not usually one of them. In his first year at Harvard, Manny Medrano did just that.
“There’s something in me, I can’t explain where it came from, but I love the idea of digging around and trying to find secrets hidden from the past,” Medrano says.
With the help of his professor, Gary Urton, a scholar of Pre-Columbian studies, Medrano interpreted a set of six khipus, knotted cords used for record keeping in the Inca Empire. By matching the khipus to a colonial-era Spanish census document, Medrano and Urton uncovered the meaning of the cords in greater detail than ever before. Their findings could contribute to a better understanding of daily life in the Andean civilization.
The Inca Empire reached its height of power in 15th- and 16th-century Peru. When Spanish conquistadors invaded, the Inca had established the largest and most complex society in the Americas. Architectural marvels from the civilization, such as Machu Picchu, survive to this day, but the Inca left behind no written records.
“The only sources we have at present are chronicles of the Inca that were written by the Spaniards,” Urton says. “We know in a lot of cases those histories were skewed by Spanish beliefs and Spanish motivations, and so we don’t really have any indigenous Inca history.”