Unraveling the mystery behind a missing Inca language

When visiting Andean South America, few people are not left in complete awe of the architectural marvels of the Inca Empire. Their precision cut stone fortresses, temples, and cities cover strategic points throughout the western half of the continent like stone jewels in a massive crown.

This empire was the big dog in the Americas from the 1430s to the 1530s and built the most extensive, advanced ancient road network. This road system covered more than 40,000 kilometres from Quito, Ecuador down to Santiago, Chile. The enigmatic kingdom also practiced advanced medical procedures like skull surgery to relieve pressure on the brain. Sophisticated surgical methods were completely unknown at the time in Europe, where men and women of science were still being burned as “witches.”

The ruins of Ollantaytambo are far more impressive than I make it look in this picture.

The military prowess of the Inca was impressive and their cultural refinement beyond comparison for the time.

So why haven´t archaeologists found any trace of a written language?

Advanced human civilizations have, historically, always developed a system of writing. Though at a glance, it appears the Inca missed the boat. It´s a societal mystery that has stumped even the most determined researchers for years. There are urban legends of engraved metal tablets with strange writing that exist in a series of tunnels beneath the former Inca capital of Cusco, but nothing has been substantiated.

It´s the kind of mystery that makes my Indiana Jones sense tingle!

Most historians think the Quipu was the only thing the Inca had that was similar to a system of writing. A Quipu was a series of colored threads with knots tied at strategic points meant to communicate things like inventory, which the Chaski runners carried across vast distances to their leaders. However, I have encountered recent evidence suggesting the Inca did have a formal written language.

So where has it been hiding all this time?

The answer lies with the Quechua people, who are the living descendants of the Inca and tell the stories of their great ancestors as though it were yesterday. The legends of Wiracocha (Viracocha) and Inti are alive and well within this quiet, conservative Andean culture. Their modern-day spoken language was also the language of the Inca working class, which has changed little since the time of their forefathers. Nowadays, the majority of Quechua people are Catholic, but have preserved the traditions and knowledge of their ancient past with a sort of quiet dignity.

Colorful Quechua ceremonial garments can be seen everywhere in the Andes.

After living in South America for three years and marrying my husband (who is from a traditional Quechua family), I can tell you with certainty there is a LOT of information about the Inca that never made into the archaeological spotlight.

And this is where we find an important clue to the existence of a written language.

My husband was a tour guide and local historian when I first met him (and a fantastic salsa dancer, but I digress). What he shared about the Inca, I found shocking since it wasn´t something I learned in my studies (I studied Pre-Colombian history extensively when I was an undergrad), or even in the more touristy areas that showcase the Inca legacy, like the city of Cusco, Peru. For example, everyone knows Quechua was the official language of the Inca.

Though it turns out that was only one of the languages.

The other was a highly guarded dialect used exclusively by the Inca royal family and other high caste individuals. For the working class (Quechua), to speak this language was punishable by death. The Inca ruling class was incredibly secretive and kept a separate yet distinct lingo for the upper tier of their society.

And with that came the missing written language.

The Khawa´khawas were the appointed surveyors of the Inca leaders. Their job was to monitor building projects, agriculture, markets, and other daily business dealings and report their findings directly to the king. Among the responsibilities of the Khawa´khawa was the task of keeping a written record, which was transcribed on tablets.

So deeply etched is the memory of the Khawa´khawa record keepers, modern-day Quechua use it as a reference to people who are acting like lazy bosses, just watching people work and taking notes.

Much like the unknown spoken language of the Royal Inca class, the written language was also not for the everyday Joe. I was astonished when my husband told me this, since not only was there no mention of any written language in the historical record, but also no evidence of it. He explained that when the Spaniards arrived, they had time to hide their most important treasures.

And for the Inca that was knowledge.

Gold was a luxury for the Spaniards, but it was an everyday item for the Inca. Their real treasure was information. For a society that hoarded education and boasted a secret language only for the elites, imagine the lengths they would go to in order to keep their most sacred possession a secret from foreign invaders?

The level of mathematical precision involved with Inca construction is nothing short of magnificent. (Fortress of Saqsaywaman, Cusco)

Hiding it for sure and perhaps even destroying the evidence of it.

The Inca were not fools and it didn´t take long for them to realize they were facing an enemy unlike any other when the Spaniards came to their doorstep. They likely would´ve hidden or even eliminated evidence of important records like the locations of military strongholds, cities, storehouses, weapons armories, road maps, and more. In the hands of an adversary, such information would mean their destruction.

Sadly, the empire fell regardless. Though the point remains: There is a collective memory among the modern day Quechua of the Inca having a written language. Evidence of this may yet be found in two distinct locations.

One of those, ironically, is Machu Picchu.

Tred upon by thousands of visitors daily, this silent testament to Inca engineering leaves all who visit spellbound by its magnificence.

But what if there´s more than what we see on the day tour?

The walls of Machu Picchu: is there more than meets the eye?

In 2016, French archaeologist Thierry Jamin and a team of researchers from the Instituto Inkari used ground-penetrating radar at the famous site and discovered a large hidden chamber containing metallic elements and a staircase, which had been sealed off by a wall of rocks. The Ministry of Culture in Cusco quickly intervened and forbid any further work at the site.

It seems the Quechua have a talent for keeping secrets.

Another possible location holding proof of the lost Inca writing system could be my home town of Sucre, Bolivia. When the Inca occupied the area and learned the Spaniards were coming, they hid a vast amount of their wealth in the twin hills of Sica Sica and Churuquella, which dominate the landscape at the edge of town. The locals dug an extensive tunnel, taking their wealth deep into the mountain, and then concealed the entrance. Try as they may, the invading Europeans found nary more than the occasional gold coin or deity carving.

It was enough to fuel their lust for treasure, but in the end, the interlopers went without ever finding the mother lode.

To this day, the occasional treasure seeker turns up an odd Inca era artifact while digging in the twin mountains but the knowledge of the original entrance has, lamentably, been lost.

Or perhaps is just as well guarded as the secret chamber within Machu Picchu.

The silent guardians of Sucre contrain a lost wealth of Inca treasure somewhere within. (Photo credit: El Diario)

Regardless, the fact that it´s well established within the Quechua community the Inca had 2 distinct, official languages, and a known writing system, is a remarkable revelation after years of historical doubt. When I asked my husband why this had never been shared with the world at large, he reiterated, “A lot of what the Quechua know they prefer to keep secret. We generally don´t share much with outsiders.”

It would appear that not everything lost was meant to be found.