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Two Khipu, One Narrative: Answering Urton's Questions
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Ethnohistory 47.2 (2000) 453-468

In his article “From Knots to Narratives,” published recently in Ethnohistory, Gary Urton (1998) examines the use of the khipu in a judicial context (in 1579 La Plata), as described in the legal documentation of the proceedings. The data registered in the mentioned khipu constitute the proof presented by the plaintiffs. These khipu contain the quantities of goods delivered by the community of Sacaca, as tribute to their encomendero, during a five-year period. One of the facts that intrigues that researcher is the need for two khipukamayuq on the premises, apparently giving the same report. Also, Urton wonders about the use of stones to count or do arithmetical operations with the figures extracted from the khipu. At the end of the article, Urton urges other researchers to offer new insights to the task of understanding this code and its uses. This invitation motivated me to use licentiate Polo de Ondegardo’s (1990a [1571]) Notables daños de no guardar a los indios sus fueros as a source of information to answer Urton’s questions about the need of having two khipu in court and the function of the stones in the calculations. I suggest that each of the khipukamayuq belongs either to Hanan or Urin, the two moieties in which spatial division is conceived of in the Andes. They need to be together to give a full account of the taxes paid. In my view the stones were used as tokens to add fractions into whole units. The linguistic and semantic data that support Ondegardo’s contributions come from period Quechua/Spanish vocabularies. The comparison of the information contained in both documents, the judicial report involving the people of Sacaca, and Ondegardo’s example of the Pava community are pertinent, since both were produced in the 1570s in the Las Charcas region, a bilingual Aymara/Quechua area. Both documents deal with tribute distribution and collection.

Ondegardo is widely considered to be a trustworthy source, having written numerous relaçiones (reports) to the king and to various viceroys, rendering careful and conscientious accounts of the “things of the land.” Since publication is not the final goal of a writer of relaçiones (that could bring fame and fortune to the author)—rather, the transmission of information about issues pertaining to the Indies is—there is an inclination to attribute more credibility to this kind of document than to a chronicle. In addition, Ondegardo was an experienced public servant, having been an officer of the Crown for more than thirty-two years in Peru when he wrote his text. He was entrusted with various positions of responsibility under several colonial authorities, which contributed to his intermediation between the “republic of Indians” and the “republic of Spaniards.”

Notables daños is one of Ondegardo’s late works, dealing mainly with indigenous tribute in the first decades of colonial rule, which he invariably compares with that of the Inka. Ondegardo prepares that report as a witness of the Pava provincia tribute distribution, which took place in Las Charcas between 1565 and 1571. Ondegardo’s presence during this process makes him an ideal informant, since he is personally and professionally interested in becoming more familiar with native administration. This attitude leads him to confirm the details of the agreements reached, since he wants to verify the compliance with the required taxation. He intends to demonstrate that if the native system is maintained, everyone will win. Ondegardo strongly recommends keeping the native taxation system, for it has been working successfully for the past four hundred years, according to his calculations. He believes that Spaniards should continue using this tax distribution and collection system for the benefit of the Spanish Crown. This idea is not shared by other Spaniards, however, who believe that native principales grow rich by stealing from the tax paid by the natives under their responsibility, to the detriment of the Crown’s share. Ondegardo considers that his own descriptions of the way in which the natives agree to distribute the amount of tax among tributaries of an encomienda warrant that no one can steal under that system, and...