“It’s a new Rosetta stone,” exclaimed retired philologist Ahiza Vega to her colleague, Costa Rican writer José León Sánchez. A sense of the full impact of a discovery the two had just made was setting in.
They had spent five years studying written and oral communication of indigenous Talamanca communities during the colonial period, when they came across an overlooked book that they now believe contains the key to deciphering part of the remaining unknown languages of several native Latin American cultures.
“On Indian Tribes and Languages of Costa Rica,” written by U.S. researcher William Gabb in 1875, was sitting on a shelf at the U.S. Library of Congress. A type of census, the book describes the Talamanca people and their living conditions, local geography and the type of political system inhabitants followed.
But what’s surprising is that Gabb went further in documenting what he saw. According to Sánchez, the 19th century researcher asked a friend from the Talamanca community to translate his findings into a type of indigenous book known as a quipu.
Quipu is an ancient method of written communication that uses multiple colored threads and knots to tell a story. It requires significant craftsmanship and skill, because each knot represents an idea. With many knots – or ideas – strung together, the resulting quipus were used to provide Inca emperors and other tribal leaders with vital information about the local population, water issues and military affairs. Quipus are thought to be an alternative form of books used by several indigenous tribes in what is now Latin America.
So far no one has been able to decipher the secret messages. For centuries, they remained virtually unreadable.
That’s about to change.
Gabb’s idea of creating a quipu copy of his book, complete with a glossary of terms for those unfamiliar with the ancient language, could now allow experts to access and translate many quipus by comparing Gabb’s definitions with the original message encrypted in any of the 600 quipus found in modern museums worldwide.
“That is one of the most important results from our investigation,” said Sánchez, co-director of the research project.
“We can now discard the Spanish colonizers’ views of the Talamanca people. They were not savages and cannibals. They were not illiterate either. In fact, they had developed highly sophisticated methods of communication before colonizers arrived,” he said.
What’s most exciting, says León, is that the key to interpreting all 600 quipus is the quipu found in Costa Rica. The resulting stories and information gleaned from translating other quipus could virtually revolutionize the way people understand the history of Latin America’s original inhabitants. It might even help debunk lingering myths about indigenous cultures that were first spread by colonists.
“The coding used to tie the knots is likely to be a universal language that all ancient cultures in Latin America shared,” said Vega.
Talamanca is located in southern Costa Rican near the Panamanian border. During the pre-Columbian period, Cabecar and Bribrí tribes – referred to generically as Talamancans – were the main inhabitants in the region, reaching a population of 3,000 people.
Pablo Presbere, a rebel indigenous leader who successfully fought Spanish invaders, was born in Talamanca. Of the indigenous tribes in what is now Latin America, only the Aymaras and Talamancans did not fall under Spanish rule.
The fact that quipus were made in this part of the Americas also reinforces the belief that the Chinese settled in the region before Spanish conquerors.
“Quipus can be traced back to China, and the fact that our indigenous people also utilized the quipu as a means of communication implies there should have been a direct contact among the two cultures,” said Vega.
Currently, Costa Rica’s quipu remains under the custody of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural Sciences in the United States, where it has been certified as a census of the Talamanca community. It first arrived at the museum after Gabb realized that Costa Rica had no suitable place to store it and keep it safe, as he explained in a letter he sent to Tomás Guardia, Costa Rica’s president, in 1875.
Despite the scientific impact of their discovery, both Sánchez and Vega agreed to end their research and allow other academics to take over. After five years working on the project, they are ready to let it go and allow other experts continue the research.
But they say they will continue to seek support among universities to bring the Costa Rican quipu back home, which would require government-to-government negotiations.
“Starting now, we all need to re-think our approach to the ancient history of the country, and the quipus will provide us with unexpected information, allowing us to get a better understanding of the origins of our societies,” said Sánchez.
“No doubt this is a great discovery, because there is no record of any other translated quipu in the world,” said Vega.