This post is part of the series Excavating Archaeology, which features selections from, and research on, the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas and related collections, housed in the Geography and Map Division and in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.
He who seeks to count the stars before he can count the scores and knots of the quipus deserves derision. –Garcilaso De La Vega, 1609-1617.
If I were king, I would redress an abuse which holds back, as it were, one half of human kind. I would have women participate in all human rights, especially those of the mind. —Émilie du Châtelet, 1744
There are books, from centuries past, whose origins and meaning are difficult to unravel, as time has moved us far away from the cultural tapestry into which they were woven. Over my many years as a curator at the Library of Congress, having been privileged to read and study some of rarest books and manuscripts in our collections, few, if any have attracted my attention and left a deeper sense of mystery than the Lettera apologetica dell’ Esercitato accademico della Crusca : contenente la difesa del libro intitolato Lettere d’una Peruana, per rispetto alla supposizione de’quipu, scritta alla Duchessa di S**** [Letter in Defense of the Academician Esercitato of the Crusca containing his Defence of the book entitled Letters of a Peruvian woman concerning the hypothesis regarding the Quipu addressed to the Duchess of S****], published in 1751, with a title page dated 1750.
The curious nature of the book dawns on you even before you start to read its well-printed pages, with the identity of the Duchess to whom it is addressed, S****, left to those in the know or those who try to find out. The title implies that the book will be about the ancient Peruvian Quipu, knotted strings that were used for accounting–an idea reinforced by a series of stunning colored engravings that grace its pages.
Written by the Italian nobleman Raimondo di Sangro (1710-1771), it appears to put forth a theory that Quipu encode the Quechuan language of the Incas, an idea that is now mostly discounted, but still remains an active area of research in some scholarly circles today. Raimondo di Sangro was a peculiar character, even by the standards of the eighteenth century upper crust. He dabbled in alchemy, was a freemason, created anatomical machines made of real human body parts, invented colored fireworks, and had rumors circulating about him that he could create blood from water.
When considering his real, or perhaps metaphorical, use of quipu in this fascinating work, it is critical to consider, or at least to keep in the back of your mind, the esoteric and complex symbolic world of freemasonry in which he was deeply immersed, and also how little information was really known about the structure and purpose of these amazing archaeological relics in the eighteenth century.
A quipu usually consists of cotton or camelid strings that are strung in a row and knotted. The Inca culture utilized them for keeping numerical records, of things like tax obligations, population and census counts, and for maintaining schedules and the calendar. Few examples have survived and those that have come down to us are found in a wide variety of sizes, some with only a few cords, some with thousands.
There are still a few scholars who believe that the cords also encode non-numerical information in their colored and knotted threads. The lack of any progress on the decipherment of the strings, nor the existence of any evidence that would connect them to a spoken language, has led most researchers to the conclusion that the quipu do not have any phonetic content. They are therefore a system of symbolic forms, rather like the notation of musical notes in a score, which, while encoding information, do not reflect any particular language. In Raimondo di Sangro’s book their threads, when unraveled however, lead to something far deeper.
If you read the book closely, as few in our century probably have, you quickly come to understand that di Sangro’s creation is more than it appears at first glance. Even though there are many figures in the volume that show the translation and possible phonetic content of the various knots of the quipu, it is more a work of radical philosophy, than of linguistics. The book, with the mysterious Duchess S*** on the title page, is in reality a reference to and a defense of the Lettres d’une péruvienne [Letters of a Peruvian Women] by Françoise de Graffigny (1695-1758), an epistolary novel from 1747, whose main character uses the techniques of quipu to write letters.
The novel, composed in what readers are led to believe are letters written as quipus, was extremely popular in its time and tells the story of an unmarried, but betrothed, Inca princess, Zilia, who is taken from the Temple of Sun by the Spanish. Inspired by her viewing of Voltaire’s play Alzire, which is set in the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru, Graffigny’s novel outlines, in letters addressed to her Inca fiancé, Aza, Zilia’s capture and rescue by the French. As an Inca women who becomes deeply entrenched in French high society, Zilia’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne present a highly satirical and very critical view of the social and living conditions of French women, as she writes about many subjects including their education and child rearing.
The book shows Zilia, who, after all her tribulations, lands in Paris, wondering how the French, “seem unable to perceive the shocking contradictions that foreigners notice in them at first glance” (letter 33). Here an Inca in Paris–a true stranger in a strange land–has a voice that projects social practices different from the norms of French society and an independent way of being in the world in which di Sangro, as a freemason, had a deep interest. She sees contradictions and hypocrisy everywhere, writing, “with the majority of French, vices are artificial, as are virtues” (letter 32).
We see her overthrowing social norms most directly, when Zilia tells her French suitor Déterville, that romantic passions will not be part of their relationship, writing instead, for him to, “come and learn how to economize the soul’s resources and the blessings of nature. Give up tumultuous sentiments, the imperceptible destroyers of our being; come and learn innocent and durable pleasures, come and indulge in them with me” (letter 41). Through it all Zilia remains a strong and autonomous Inca woman. She does not marry, she will not have children, she does have wealth and a male companion, but retains a level of self-sufficiency very foreign for a woman in the Catholic dominated culture of France.
The Lettera of di Sangro is an extremely complex book to unravel and like a quipu has many threads. Our Italian nobleman suggests at one point that Graffigny’s novel might have been translated from the quipu diary of the young princess and fills the Lettera with quotes from authors as diverse as, Spinoza, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and Voltaire. At times the text wanders like a thread through a vast tapestry, with the reader having no idea where the book is going or what its author is trying to say. In it, Raimondo di Sangro not only discusses the quipu, but also takes a radical stand on the need for free thought, on the rights of women, on the acceptance of unorthodox theories of creation and the place of human beings in it, and expresses open hostility towards the limiting ideas of the Catholic church.
And so what appeared, at least on the title page and through its illustrations, to be a text about the language encoded in quipu, was in fact so much more that is was banned by the censors of the Sacred Congregation of the Index of prohibited books, who condemned the work on the 29th February 1752, as infected by “foul plague”.
So the next time you think you know what a book is about just by looking at its cover, or think you can predict its contents by the pictures you quickly flip through, remember the lesson of Raimondo di Sangro’s quipu, and consider the vast threads of meaning that weave their way through the printed pages of every book.
Anyone interested in looking deeper into Khipus should consult the The Cord Keepers: Khipus and Cultural Life in a Peruvian Village by Frank L. Salomon, published in 2004 and Inka History in Knots: Reading Khipus as Primary Sources, by Gary Urton, from 2017.