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Incan Counting System Decoded?
Discovery News ^ | Feb 3 2004 | By Rossella Lorenzi

Posted on 02/03/2004 6:04:59 AM PST by vannrox

Incan Counting System Decoded?


By Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News


Learn how to add 9+7 on the yupana abacus.

Jan. 29, 2004 ? The Inca invented a powerful counting system that could be used to make complex calculations without the tiniest mistake, according to an Italian engineer who claims to have cracked the mathematics of this still mysterious ancient population.

Begun in the Andean highlands in about 1200, the Inca ruled the largest empire on Earth by the time their last emperor, Atahualpa, was garroted by Spanish conquistadors in 1533.



Long been considered the only major Bronze Age civilization without a written language, they left mysterious objects that, according to the latest research, would have been used to store units of information.

Recent studies are investigating the hypothesis that elaborated knotted strings known as khipu contain a hidden written language stored following a seven-bit binary code. Nobody, however, had been able to explain the meaning of these geometrical tablets known as yupana.

Different in size and shape, the yupana had been often interpreted as a stylized fortress model. Some scholars also interpreted it as a counting board, but how the abacus would have worked remained a mystery.

"It took me about 40 minutes to solve the riddle. I am not an expert on pre-Columbian civilizations. I simply decoded a 16th century drawing from a book on mathematical enigmas I received as a Christmas present," engineer Nicolino De Pasquale said.

The drawing was found in a 1,179 page letter by the Peruvian Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala to the King of Spain. A simple array of cells consisting of five rows and four columns, the drawing showed one circle in the right cell on the bottom row, two circles in the next cell, three circles in the other one and five circles in the last cell of the row. The same pattern applied to the above rows.

According to De Pasquale, the circles in the cells are nothing but the first numbers of the Fibonacci series, in which each number is a sum of two previous: 1, 2, 3, 5.

The abacus would then work on a base 40 numbering system.

"Instead, all scholars based their calculations according to a base 10 counting system. But calculations made to base 40 are quicker, and can be easily reconverted to base 10," Antonio Aimi, curator of the exhibition "Peru, 3,000 Years of Masterpieces" running in Florence, told Discovery News.

"Since we lack definitive archaeological evidence, we tested this claim on 16 yupana from museums across the world. De Pasquale's system works on all of them," Antonio Aimi, curator of the exhibition "Peru, 3,000 years of masterpieces" running in Florence, told Discovery News.

The Inca's calculating system (see an example of how it works in the slide show) does not take into consideration the number zero. Moreover, numbers do not exist as graphic representations.

According to Aimi, in most cases the Inca made their calculations by simply drawing rows and columns on the ground. The unusual counting way is described in an account by the Spanish priest José de Acosta, who lived among the Inca from 1571 to 1586.

"To see them use another kind of calculator, with maize kernels, is a perfect joy... . They place one kernel here, three somewhere else and eight, I do not know where. They move one kernel here and there and the fact is that they are able to complete their computation without making the smallest mistake," Acosta wrote in his book "Historia Natural Moral de las Indias."

The claim has sparked a dispute among scholars.

Gary Urton, professor of Precolumbian studies at Harvard University, an authority on khipu research, told Discovery News: "The fact that an explanation can be constructed for one or even several yupana that conforms to this theory of a base 40 numbering system amongst the Incas is of some modest interest.

"How would one explain the many statements in the Spanish chronicles, both those written by Spaniards and by literate Andeans, who stated quite straightforwardly that the Inca used a base 10 counting system? This system is also attested in a mountain of early colonial documents that describe how the Inca organized their administrative system according to a base 10 counting system."

As Aimi concedes, the claim has the limits of any interpretative system that isn't proven with definitive historical evidence.

"We would need to find a Rosetta yupana, something similar to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics from the Rosetta stone. Since we can't have it, I would consider a strong evidence the fact that the system works on all yupana examined," he said.


TOPICS: Business/Economy; Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; Extended News; Foreign Affairs; Government; Mexico; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: ancient; artifacts; count; decode; education; found; godsgravesglyphs; history; inca; khipu; math; new; past; quipu; strange; system; understood; wonderful
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To: vannrox
"How would one explain the many statements in the Spanish chronicles, both those written by Spaniards and by literate Andeans, who stated quite straightforwardly that the Inca used a base 10 counting system? This system is also attested in a mountain of early colonial documents that describe how the Inca organized their administrative system according to a base 10 counting system."

It couldn't be that the Spaniards might have understood the system incorrectly. After all, we know how interested they were in cultural understanding:

the Inca ruled the largest empire on Earth by the time their last emperor, Atahualpa, was garroted by Spanish conquistadors in 1533.

Brilliant mathematicians those conquistadors! Outsiders bring a fresh perspective to "intractable" issues. Never look to experts for novel ideas.

21 posted on 02/03/2004 7:02:31 AM PST by antidisestablishment (Our people perish through lack of wisdom, but they are content in their ignorance.)
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To: cinFLA
Nope. Actually, I think it was cool. I should have used a /sarcasm tag, huh?
22 posted on 02/03/2004 7:03:06 AM PST by NotQuiteCricket
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To: ClearCase_guy
Don't bother - I think she's newly illegally immigrized.
23 posted on 02/03/2004 7:03:56 AM PST by azhenfud ("He who is always looking up seldom finds others' lost change...")
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To: singletrack
36-24-36
24 posted on 02/03/2004 7:04:15 AM PST by fishtank
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To: cinFLA
Are you so closed to new ideas?

You have to imagine the [sarcasm] tags, then read it again. The comment is really an indictment of academia.

25 posted on 02/03/2004 7:05:41 AM PST by Oberon (What does it take to make government shrink?)
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To: cinFLA
Cricket was sarcastically referring to the uppity ''scholar'', Gary Urton, professor of Precolumbian studies at Harvard University, an authority on khipu research,....who was obviously miffed that some lowlife dared to solve the problem in 40 minutes from a freaking picture in a book. Not only was it obvious that Cricket had read the article, but it was apparent that Cricket has a really good ear for tone.

(Kuddoes, Cricket!)
26 posted on 02/03/2004 7:08:42 AM PST by elli1
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To: Redbob
Where do you suppose we got our base-12 system?

Sumeria. Also the 60 minute hour and the 360 degree circle.

And how well-developed could their civilization have been when they didn't know about wheels?

Wheels really don't have a great deal of utility without draft animals to pull a cart. Apparently, the wheel in all cultures was first used for chariots, carts or wagons. Some of its other uses, such as the wheelbarrow that is actually useful by man-power, didn't come along till thousands of years later. In western Europe the wheelbarrow wasn't used till the middle ages.

27 posted on 02/03/2004 7:10:29 AM PST by Restorer
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To: vannrox
"The Inca invented a powerful counting system that could be used to make complex calculations without the tiniest mistake ....... "

Well it couldn't have been very reliable.

Either that or they never divided 200 Spaniards into the Incan population and came up with extinction.

28 posted on 02/03/2004 7:13:30 AM PST by G.Mason (Mediocrity in politics is not to be despised. Greatness is not needed.)
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To: vannrox
Gary Urton, professor of Precolumbian studies at Harvard University, an authority on khipu research, told Discovery News: "The fact that an explanation can be constructed for one or even several yupana that conforms to this theory of a base 40 numbering system amongst the Incas is of some modest interest.

Always nice to see my boy Gary being quoted. Good guy. I gave a talk on Incan mathematics once. They did some pretty complex stuff, nobody really knows how. I'd have to read more about this theory to form an opinion.

29 posted on 02/03/2004 7:20:04 AM PST by JohnnyZ
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To: E. Pluribus Unum
What base 12 system?

They unearthed an Incan PDP-8. :)

(Yes, yes, I'm taking certain artistic liberties. Hey, it's a joke, man, a joke.)

30 posted on 02/03/2004 7:23:33 AM PST by Don Joe ("Bush owes the 'base' nothing." --Texasforever, 01/28/2004)
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To: elli1; cinFLA; Oberon
Cricket was sarcastically referring to the uppity ''scholar'', Gary Urton, professor of Precolumbian studies at Harvard University, an authority on khipu research

Personally, I got the sarcasm, but Gary Urton is a highly intelligent, open-minded individual. He is indeed a scholar and has studied khipus, ethnomathematics, et al in great depth. He was was also awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant.

And he is most certainly NOT uppity! He's -- well, he's very laid back, let's just say.

31 posted on 02/03/2004 7:26:52 AM PST by JohnnyZ
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To: elli1
The folks in the Americas didn't know what to do with it, in part probably because they didn't have draft animals.

I wonder why they didn't do what the scandinavians did with reindeer, and use deer for draft animals?

32 posted on 02/03/2004 7:27:24 AM PST by Don Joe ("Bush owes the 'base' nothing." --Texasforever, 01/28/2004)
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To: George from New England
12 times 12 = 1 gross

Madonna plus Brittany = ANOTHER gross!

33 posted on 02/03/2004 7:28:45 AM PST by Elsie (When the avalanche starts... it's too late for the pebbles to vote....)
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Gotta love the Conquistadors:

"yeah, great counting system...can you lift your hair off your shoulders for a moment. Yeah, yeah....this is a Spanish necklance...."

34 posted on 02/03/2004 7:29:37 AM PST by Vermont Lt (I am not from Vermont. I lived there for four years and that was enough.)
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To: Bikers4Bush
Big Indian or

Little Indian???

35 posted on 02/03/2004 7:30:20 AM PST by Elsie (When the avalanche starts... it's too late for the pebbles to vote....)
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To: Restorer
Which came first?

Smooth roads or wheels??


Seems to me that BOTH have to be in place before much good can come from them.
36 posted on 02/03/2004 7:32:43 AM PST by Elsie (When the avalanche starts... it's too late for the pebbles to vote....)
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To: E. Pluribus Unum
Excellent point, EPU.
37 posted on 02/03/2004 7:35:06 AM PST by expatpat
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To: Elsie
Big Indian or

Little Indian???

Little-Indian. They were Intelligent, after all.

38 posted on 02/03/2004 7:36:26 AM PST by Don Joe ("Bush owes the 'base' nothing." --Texasforever, 01/28/2004)
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Perhaps this is the counting system that Liberman and Dean use that tells them they still have a chance in hell of getting the nomination.

Kind of like coutning in Dog Years.....
39 posted on 02/03/2004 7:42:35 AM PST by Vermont Lt (I am not from Vermont. I lived there for four years and that was enough.)
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To: Restorer
In western Europe the wheelbarrow wasn't used till the middle ages.

Throw out yer dead!

Throw out yer dead!

40 posted on 02/03/2004 7:43:47 AM PST by Erasmus
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