At conference of Andean scholars this past June, Laura Laurencich Minelli, a professor of Precolumbian studies at the University of Bologna, described what she believes to be a seventeenth-century Jesuit manuscript that contains detailed information on literary quipus. Surfacing at a time when the decipherment of these string documents is at a standstill, the manuscript, if authentic, could be a Rosetta Stone for Andean scholarship.
Found in the family papers of Neapolitan historian Clara Miccinelli, the manuscript consists of nine folios measuring eight by 11 inches with Spanish, Latin, and ciphered Italian texts. Included in the document are three half-pages of drawings signed "Blas Valera" and an envelope containing a wool quipu fragment. The manuscript, folded in eighths, had been bound in a chestnut-colored cover bearing the title Historia et Rudimenta Linguae Piruanorum, or History and Rudiments of the Language of the Peruvians.
Miccinelli believes the text was written by two Italian Jesuit missionaries, Joan Antonio Cumis and Joan Anello Oliva, between 1610 and 1638, and that the three half-folios were written by Valera, a mestizo Jesuit, sometime before 1618. An inscription and the manuscript's cover were apparently added in the mid-eighteenth century by another Jesuit, Pedro de Illanes. A short dedication on the last page bears the name of an Italian duke, Amedeo di Savoia-Aosta, who is said to have given the manuscript as a wedding gift to a fellow army officer in 1927.
In addition to details about reading literary quipus, the document discusses events and people associated with the Spanish conquest of Peru. It includes the incredible claims that Francisco Pizarro conquered the region after poisoning Inka generals with arsenic-tainted wine and that the chronicler Guamán Poma de Ayala, author of one of the most important works on Inka Peru, the Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno (New Chronicle and Good Government), merely lent his name to a work actually written by Valera.
According to Cumis there were quipus that differed from the ones used for accounting. These so-called royal quipus had elaborate woven symbols, which hung down from a main string.
Most of the historical information contained in the manuscript is in conflict with our current understanding of the Spanish conquest of Peru, which is based on the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega, the Spanish Jesuit Bernabé Cobo, Guamán Poma de Ayala, and numerous official communications between Spain and its New World colony.
According to Laurencich Minelli's preliminary examination, signatures on the Naples manuscript appear to match those on authentic documents by the same authors.
According to Bruce Mannheim, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Michigan, "From its sound, scribal practice, and grammatical forms, however, the Quechua itself is likely of northern, probably Ecuadorian, origin and resembles that used by Jesuits in the mid- to late seventeenth century--no earlier.
If much of the historical content is suspect, what about the document's information about quipus? "If, in fact, it does offer a method for reading the quipus, this would represent a tremendous advance in the study of Andean societies," says Urton. "We need to have the results of the tests that Laura Laurencich Minelli wants to run on the document, tests analyzing the inks, paints, and paper that were used.