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Stringing Together an Ancient Empires Stories


you're archaeologists right. Yes I am. Do People ever ask you about Indiana Jones What do you mean like like when you're talking to people who don't know you that well do you ever get the sense that they have this picture in their mind of you in Fedora unraveling ancient mysteries he's and mixing it up with treasure hunters that happens all the time. What do you say in those situations I mean. Is it ever awkward explaining that. Our work isn't isn't really exciting quite in that way. Well actually it can be you know for those people that just want to hear a good adventure story. The story about like swashbuckling swashbuckling anthropologists archaeologists struggling against the odds perhaps against Nazis to advance our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. Uh You know what I do what I tell them. One want to hear one of my favorites. Yes please what makes us human human age of discoveries sex while you're dreaming termite taste lights of what makes us human. Let's find find out the podcast for the reason so the first thing we need need to do is introduced the hero of our story there hello. Can you hear me. Her name is Sabina highland and she's a professor of anthropology at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. I just feel sorry that I have a boring American accent. Okay Sabina specializes in the anthropology of South America America. Yeah so you know I've been working in the Andes for years trying to understand what kind of keep booze might have existed still still chip. Hold on for our listeners. What's a key Pu good question. A keeble is a way of communication using using three dimensional courts right. I'm pretty sure I've seen one before it looked kind of like a grass skirt laid flat and made of strings and rope with knots in them most inca booze consist of top chord from which hang pendants on those pendants usually are not the penance are also often different colors I did. She say that. The incas used these keepers to communicate. How did that work well for a longtime. Scholars thought that keepers were a tool for recording numbers like how many people are born in the village this year and to record that number we need to tie this particular kind of not on this particular pendant cord that kind of thing a lot of scholars until really the nineteen eighties nineteen ninety s a lot of scholars said that well they were just memory aids and that when the person who made the keep who died that keep who became useless because nobody ever read it again one of the big breakthrough breakthroughs and keep research came when Gary Irt and who's at Harvard now said wait a minute that just doesn't make sense. How can you have an empire of millions ends of people but all your records are just you know memory AIDS that are meaningless. Something happens to the person who made them so what happened next. Have we figured out what these keep who's were and how they worked. That's the thing no not really keep who's are still one of the most fascinating mysteries in South America and Sabina has dedicated her entire career to studying them seeking out these communities where the key tradition might still be alive and this is where our story really starts John. Have you seen the show ancient x-files now so oh you gotta see season two episode for it aired in Twenty twelve and it was all about Sabina and the keepers the keep who are sacred objects acts with mystical powers. It's so frustrating to look at these strings and to realize that the secrets of a whole civilization are tied up in them and yet we can't read them and so that had aired it aired in Spanish in different languages and one day I'm at home. I opened my computer and there's a facebook message from someone I'd never heard of before and she said well. I just saw your documentary. I'm in Peru and the village where I come from. We have to keep us. Do you think you'd WanNa see them. This was a really incredible moment for Sabina at her mind started rated racing with possibilities can imagine especially because almost all of the eight hundred or so that we know about are stored in museums and universities or private collections and we think all of them are numerical records right like what we talked about earlier numbers of people born in a year things like that but there are Spanish records from the Sixteenth Century documenting the existence of narrative keep us modern researchers have never been able to reliably identify one but this woman said no outsider had ever seen her villages keepers before so there was a chance they contain much more than just numbers think about the untold stories the things we could learn. I mean it could be about anything that's why Sabina says that for her. Finding Decipher -able narrative active keep who would be like finding the holy grail of South American anthropology and of course. I was like yes of course I wanNA see them. Wait a second hold on. This is all super exciting but I've had my fair share of spam email. Who was this woman in wishy credible. Well Sabina didn't really know so she wrote back and this woman responded and they struck up a correspondence over the next year or so. Sabina China learned that her name is Matt Jay. She is a retired nurse. She grew up in this remote village San Juan Dakota and she left when she was fifteen and she said said that her village is really not doing well. The young people are leaving. There's no economic advanced people. Are you know the young people are making fun of a lot of the rituals and stuff and she felt that if I were to come there and write up a report about their key booze and certify how important and they are that that could be something that the local people could use to fill pride in in who they are so there's a lot more riding riding on this than just friends or policy. It sounds like her work could mean a lot to the village to so what happened. Well Msci told her that the village leaders were holding a big meeting in July of two thousand fifteen and they'd have to prove any access to the key booze so Sabina bought plane tickets to prove for her and her husband bill highland like many things that come out of the blue not really sure if they're going to really develop into something or not but this one did they made all the preparations rations they could and when July rolled around they drove to the airport and Attleboro made a connecting flight and then another one and finally hours and hours later they arrived in Lima. Were they checked into the historic Grand Hotel Boulevard. It's a beautiful old hotel and there's an old bar in it. Let's kind had a famous as a meeting place and that's where they met Metcha for the first time and then we talked and we really connected so they rented a minivan and set out into the Andes. It's a strange region the mountains around Lima because you think that because it's so close to Lima that you know it's not going to be that different from the urban cost but it's a different world. These mountains are so rugged there so steve so it's it's not very far as far as the condor indoor flies you might say from Lima but it takes hours to get up there because you're basically you're gradually ascending and then you're driving on these switchback roads. It's kind of terrifying you. Don't look down because you know you're you're literally inches from a decline that that goes down thousands dozens of fee eventually reach a point where we were able to get out and then it was very moving and very special when we got our view of the village for the first time they pulled into the town on square in front of an old clone era church and a small crowd was gathering to greet them almost immediately though it was clear to Sabina that something was wrong when I got to the village. I had no idea that the village was so divided politically. I'd had a little inkling of it from things that match I said Ed but then when we were there it became clear that while most of the people in the community supported me and what I was doing there were definitely people who do not oh that doesn't sound good and that's not all when she was planning this trip. Toyata Sabina heard some unsettling rumors about what they might be walking into some of the rumors that I heard I don't know if they're true. Some of the members of the village had belonged to Sendero Luminoso which is the terrorist group that really kind of causal is a civil war in the nineteen eighties again. I have no idea if that's true so these rumors were on her mind but they just walked right into these villages total outsiders yeah but not just any outsiders they wanted to study. The villages most prized possessions but Sabina wasn't scared or nervous. She says it's all part of the job. Field Orcas hard anybody who studies anthropology knows that it's not easy to go into places as the stranger asked people to tell you what their secrets are and you learn how to behave with respect with circumspection that if if things seemed to that they're starting to become dangerous will then you should leave so yeah what happened next stood. They go see the booze well remember the village leaders and their big meeting shortly after Sabina bill arrived in chaotic. They were directed into a large adobe building up a flight of stairs and into a room packed with distinguished local officials going to the assembly. It was very nerve wracking. I was very hopeful that they would give us permission but you just keep thinking in the back of your mind. Oh don't screw this up. Sabina don't screw through this up Senor Presidente dumb. I explained to the people how important these keep. UIS are not adjust to them not just a science but really to the Peruvian nation at this is part of the patrimony of the people of Peru. I also suggested that if these key booze are really important this could be something that could bring tourism and what did the assembly only say were. They interested what happened. This is my favorite part because the assembly demanded that bill give a speech to how AM I. What am I going going to say. That was the first thing I mean I can read Spanish pretty well and but my speaking is very primitive very slow. I said hello so basically in Spanish and then I thought I should just it would be more effective if I just spoke in English and one of the local guys translated I'm. I'm not quite sure what he translated and then they said yes. Sabina says that a few people from the village got up to speak against them but yes they said yes and out from a secret underground chamber they brought an old box full of historic documents and inside inside that box were to keep who's just like. Mitch had promised all the time ago. I felt such massive relief when I realized they were going to let us see the boots but then of course another wave of anxiety takes over me right because I'm thinking oh my gosh. Can I do justice to studying these while chip. That was an incredible story. You were right and now I wanNA know everything about key poos right and with Indiana Jones. This is when the credits would roll you might be feeling a little ill from all that popcorn and then you back to your life but for Sabina. This was was just the beginning remember. This all happened back in two thousand fifteen. She spent the past four years studying the Koya to keep his so did they turn out to be narrative errative campus. Are we finally going to decipher the ancient secrets of the INCAS. Did she do justice to the people of Seattle was a really good questions. Let's see of Sabina has answers so to jump in. I'd love for you to tell us about these keepers that examined in co Yada. You know what did they look like. The keepers in Colorado were unlike any others. I never really seen before. There's something magical about them. They're so beautiful and so fine and have so many colors in them. Each keep who has a top chord accord about as long as my arm and then there about two hundred pendants hanging down from the top chord unlike a lot of incubus the coach he is John John have any nuts or very few they have many different colors and they have objects tied into them so there's like a piece of of cloth tied onto one of the pendants. There were tassels. There were these brushes of brilliant red deer hair. I mean just extraordinary ordinary. There's also metal fiber and some of the features of them were kind of metal. I don't know what kind of metal it looked silvery. That's all I know now but is probably not pure silver. 'cause it wasn't tarnished. how how big are the like stretch out your arms as it. Kinda go that full width orb smaller the keep itself is probably about the length of my arm and then each pendant is about a foot long but but the thing is the pendants were incredibly fine only a few millimeters thick when I was looking through dependence and I was being watched by these two herders who bat an hobby yeah to make sure that I wasn't doing anything disrespectful. They would marvel at the workmanship and then what was really exciting. I think which kind kind of shocked me and everybody else heard about this is I would ask the herders what material each pendant was made from and he would take it and he would spend a long time feeling kneeling each chord and he would be able to identify the animal fiber these were made of the fibers from six different animals be coon. Yes dear Alpaca Yamanaka and be Scotch. Scotch is a little rodent. That's hunted for food and he could tell just by feeling the texture of these different fibers he would he could identify the animals he could identify the animals by feeling the texture of the fiber and that's really important because a lot of times to courts would look the same like a brown deer hair cord and a brown between your cord look the same but they feel completely different and he actually insisted that. I not wear gloves which of course makes me very nervous when people see pictures of me handling them with my bare hands but it was a sign of respect and he taught me how to feel the differences in the different kind of animal fibers well tell us more about keepers in general what what are the mysteries surrounding them. I'm I think he does fascinate people because they are so mysterious. How can you have a writing. That's made out of nodded cords. Are they a writing and they're also beautiful one. Keep a researcher once referred to keep who's looking like a Ma pet and I think that was really unfair because when you look at them they they have you know they're all sorts of color patterns that you see in it becomes kind of mesmerizing and how about the the tradition itself who made these new for how many years what period what about you know the context in which they were actually created and used there there are so many questions about keeps really still at the ground level and trying to understand them one of the things that has become clear keepers represent probably a you one of the longest lasting native American traditions of inscription over a millennium the earliest keep booze date to the Ouari sorry which is about nine hundred. Ad We look at the end of the war period. Where were they living the worry. The worry were living in kind of the south central a central Andes where cousteau is now some other regions and so they had campus then there's a period of it's kind of an intermediate media period before the INCAS rise the INCAS have keep boost for a little over one hundred years and then the colonial keep a tradition when we now know actually last four hundred years so this is over a millennium and and then of course there are scholars who think that there are keepers that are much older and it's just just simply not clear yet whether that's the case or not yeah so. That's really cool to think about seventeen thousand years so when we're thinking about the Americas some native traditions did have kinda formal writing like the my ancient my and they're probably other kind of mnemonic devices ways people wrote things things are treated art as a way to keep memories alive. I worked in the southwest myself where they had something called a calendar sticks amongst the the tunnel autumn which is basically a long stick and each year a particular event would be marked on the stick like maybe the round owned circle with another circle over to commemorate an eclipse so it's a way to kind of remember a major event every year so there are these traditions all across the Americas but this is probably one of the most ancient most continuous and most mysterious at the same times. That's why I'm so excited uh-huh and it's exciting to think about if we could Sunday read these key booze they would give us an unbelievable insight into how Indian people's viewed the world around them but beyond that it's also about writing native Americans into the history of writing you know our models about the development of writing are really based on the Old World Yup Europe and Middle East and beyond absolutely and so they except for the Mayas says and very certain kind of ways of talking about my writing they leave out the whole Western Hemisphere and that just doesn't make sense. I think we need to expand and our understanding of what writing is and keepers really give us away into that. It's been almost four years. What have you learned from the Co Yada keepers. Have you deciphered them. I've deciphered a few chords of Aquatic Poos. The the ending cords which actually are phonetic. It seems that the chaotic keep Uis are what we call logos elastic that means there are a combination nation of signs that indicate sound which would be fanatic and then signs indicate ideas so for example the brush of red deer hair at at the beginning of the coyote does the local people told me that indicates war on behalf of Inca K. Luca but the pendants themselves appear to represent cents sounds so that's the hanging by pendant you mean kind of like hanging a not at the bottom of sorts after each chord which has it's its own set of colors. It's on degree of twist and then of course a different animal fiber represents a sound and so I've been able to decipher the names at the ends of the cords and now about twenty years ago to mathematicians developed a system whereby are by they said using very advanced probability and statistics. If you have a situation we have a known language an a writing system that is not understood they said with their method you can be able to decipher the writing system by looking at combinations of three different consonants and syllables and so on and nobody's really tested it out but I have an amazing doctoral student coming from Harvard one of guerrier and students. His name is Manny Madryn. Oh man you and I are going to be working together on the Cape boost to see if we can decipher the entire message what what have you learned about the Yada keepers themselves as objects when they were created and why when bill and I were in the village we've talked to the older man about the key booze and they told us what they were told by their fathers and grandfathers was that they were letters or pixels missiles written during a rebellion against the Inca and that this was in the late eighteenth century well I did some research and it turns out that that in fact in seventeen eighty three there was a rebellion that broke out against the Spanish in this very town of Kolkata and in the neighboring villages so those oral histories matchup with hockey men's from the time that's amazing and did you learn more about that. Rebellion in the archive of the indies in Seville bill I found actually over a thousand pages of testimony of the rebels who fought on behalf of their new INCA king man named named Tuba Inca you punky and testimony from the the captured rebel tells you punky ordered the men of code and the neighboring villages just to lay siege to the capital of Lima and his goal was to place himself on the throne of Peru from going through this testimony. I was able to identify identify a number of these. Keep pistols or keep you letters. I I don't like to use the word letters because that gets confused with the alphabet okay so so there are records showing that some of these people were sending keep who's back and forth to each other to communicate about this rebellion got it so one was written in seventeen eighty two by the right hand man of the emperor to banker you punky and it was written to the men of Koya telling them you know that the emperor had come back doc and that they should swear loyalty to him and then another one was written by the mayor of in seventeen eighty three in January telling his neighbors burs at the emperor was in town and that they should come and pay him homage and so the book Captain Koyo was a copy of that letter. That's a fascinating story being and it sounds like there's reason to believe that at least one of the two keepers you saw in chaotic was in fact a narrative Kiu which is like totally amazing and I know you said you haven't fully decipher them yet but it's clear to me that these coups are offering a truly unique perspective on the history of the Andes and South America so in that vein Let's broaden our focus a little bit. What can we learn from keep us about what it means to be human one of the most powerful things about Keith Busse and this recent research that I've done on innkeeper's is understanding how the haptic that is. The sense of touch is absolutely essential to the code is not just a case he's like Oh. I'm looking at like a nice old manuscript in it's kind of cool to see the old paper but the actual code depends on touch on the sense of touch and and it's not just true for the keepers other keepers in this area use differences between like soft fibers hard fibers. It's rough fibres and so on Andean keep new show the possibility of another way of understanding the world around us when we read philosophers who think about the difference between experienced things through touch an experienced through sight visual experiments viruses often at a remove whereas touching brings other things into our cells and that gives us the whole question of how how do people view the world differently when they're very access to knowledge is through sight and touch simultaneously not just through site is is there something intrinsic about how Indian People's view the world that the rest of US could learn from So how have you been back to Colorado since two thousand fifteen how how are the people in the village engaging with your ongoing work bill and I are going back to the village next week okay and so we're we're very excited about that. One of the great things about working in the Andes is that people care about their history and they're excited did for outsiders to know about it. The people in clear out have been very positive about the work that I've been able to do there. Also I worked with the village authorities to make a packet of information about their keep us for the school children in the village. one of the community officials officials told me that it's very important to him and the other authorities that the young children learn about how valuable their local heritage is us and then what's especially moving to me is that in two thousand seventeen on the annual feast day of the village riches. June twenty-fourth the village assembly formally inducted a Spanish translation of my primary article about the attic keep booze and they place that with the booze in this hidden archive in this box that goes in the underground chamber under the Church so that was very moving so you've entered the community's own historical record and way and your your work. Has that must be really rewarding. According it is it's kind of an anthropologist dream. Allow that really was a good story. I just some things really stood out to me. I mean besides that seventeen eighty three rebellion by the people of which was amazing I think what really struck me was the way she went about doing her research. I mean the fact that a community member asked her to get involved the she had to go down and ask ask for permission. It was a community decision to allow access to those materials and not only that but she needed their help to actually decipher what what these keep who said in so it was a real collaboration between her and the community and then beyond just what you could learn from the keep themselves was was how she shared what she was learning back not just the journal article that she wrote but also creating curriculum for the local community to have some information about which she had been learning from this project. I mean all of that was really cool and the clear theme for me as well and a really important one because for a long time archaeologists archaeologists anthropologists scientists. It's kind of been this extractive science. You know you go into community on your terms. You take what you want out of it and and it never go back and maybe never hears from you again and what comes through so clear in this story is how this is the community's heritage they are the heritage keepers right and that's so important to recognize and then on top of it because of that collaboration you actually ended up with better science the different history a different story actually comes out of that collaboration so we all benefit from that. I mean she wouldn't have known how to actually read read the they helped her with the animal hair and stuff like that and even just have access to have access either in control of what was happening with their own heritage. It was really inspiring so the other thing that this brings to mind is in western scholarship for a long time there was is this phrase a people without history when they were talking about native American communities and it's not true on so many levels but it was in part right because of the fact that there was no writing system or very few right yeah basically the ancient Maya Right. I had a writing system but that's about it and so oh there's been this huge bias out of scholarship. They came out of Europe that if it's not written down then there's no history. There's nothing real to the past. You know. That's the only way you can know. The past is through a writing system that documents what happened right so there's some sort of reliable objective record record and we know writing has all kinds of biopsies but I think even more even more is the fact that writing is not the only way to remember the past is not the only way to document what happened if for me for example this this brings up the work of Keith Basso who wrote brilliant book called wisdom sits places and this books talks about how the western Apache people of the American southwest remember their pass through place names and so it's mountains or streams or or places on the land where specific events happened and elders use the land itself as demonic doc as a way to remember specific times and happenings and the US these places to instruct the next generation about what had happened happened before them and so the land it self literally becomes a form of remembering so much of this idea of history's really has the visual bias in the west and here we're seeing it can be in weavings can be on the land and a lot of it is just how a cultural community the teachers how to remember the past and what's important from generation to generation and that can come in so many forms exciting right is that that like it expands our very notion of what is history how we remember the past and it gets us away from the idea that it's only written written words on a page or on a monument or something like that and that it can actually be all around us and there's this wondrous diversity that humans have come up with these amazing array of possibilities of how all of us can remember the past he yeah so oh keep teach us this great story. It is just a good story. History and remembering can be all around us. It can be on paper community leaving the land or other places. We don't even know to look yet. Let's keep looking this episode of Sapiens was produced by by Paul Karoly mixed audio edited and sound designed by Jason Patton Matthews Simonsen composed our theme and it was hosted by me Jen Shannon and me Chip Colo Sapiens is produced by house of pod with splendid contributions from executive producer can't Jaffe and production assistant friede crier who who provided additional support Merrill AG- ish is our fact checker and a special. Thanks this time to Sabina Bill Highland in the show notes to this episode. You can find a link to the article Sabina road about the Koya keepers for sapiens Dot Org. This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the winner Grand Foundation which has provided vital support through dental and Rutherford Moya Kenny and its staff board an advisory council additional support was provided by the Imago Mundi Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas. Thanks always to Amanda Musk Garelli Daniel Solace Christine Webber K. Letham Powell and everyone and at Sapienza Dot Org Sapiens is part of the American Anthropological Association podcast library until next time. You all fell asleep

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