The Colgate Scene
July 2000
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Unraveling the secret of strings with a no-strings-attached MacArthur grant
by Sarah Jarvis
For 30 years, Gary Urton, professor of anthropology, has studied and worked to crack the code of the quipu, an ancient system of dyed, intricately knotted strings used by the Incas to record their history, environment and culture.

     Urton became fluent in Quechua, the language used by the Incas, and he and his linguist-tutor talked of the stars, colors and numbers associated with the ancient civilization. He learned the way that a weaver "speaks" through textiles and the symbolism and mathematics associated with the patterns of colored thread, by learning how to weave in the Andes. He became versed in the many Incan languages, both spoken and woven, all to come closer to solving a mystery.

     It is Urton's intellectual ingenuity, creativity and determined scholarship that brought him to the attention of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, underwriters of the so-called "genius" awards. On June 13, the foundation officially announced that Gary Urton and 24 other individuals were named MacArthur Fellows. Along with the recognition that accompanies this remarkable honor, each fellow receives a "no-strings-attached" grant of $500,000 over five years.

     "MacArthur Fellows are chosen for their exceptional creativity, record of significant accomplishment, and potential for still greater achievement," said Daniel J. Socolow, director of the Fellows Program. It is impossible to apply for the MacArthur Fellowships. "It is the first and only call we make to them, and it can be life changing," says Socolow.

     Urton's call came while he was mowing the lawn at his home in Earlville, New York. His son Jason actually answered the phone, and Urton asked him to take a message. Jason came back outside and said, "The man on the telephone said this is one call you're going to be glad you answered.''

     Upon hearing that he was being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and a stipend of $500,000, Urton said, "My knees began shaking and I was, perhaps for the first time in my life, completely speechless.''

     According to the MacArthur Foundation, "Urton's inquiries always concern non-Western knowledge and the beauty and complexity of its organization as manifested through visual form. As such, his work provides new perspectives on human intelligence and illuminates different ways of thinking about and organizing the world . . . He has consistently made connections that others have been unable to see, and through imaginative and groundbreaking work has made a succession of new discoveries.''

     While there are no limits, typically between 20 and 40 MacArthur Fellows are selected each year. Including the 25 new fellows, a total of 588 fellows, ranging in age from 18 to 82, have been named since the program began in 1981.

     The flexibility and freedom the $500,000 stipend provides have the potential of bringing Urton closer to making his most significant scholarly discovery to date.

     Thirty-two perfectly preserved quipus were recently discovered in some craggy cliffs overlooking a lake in northeastern Peru, near the town of Leymebamba. Although it appears to look more like a mop's head, the quipu intriguingly holds the narratives, genealogy, symbols, phenomena and quantitative measurements of ancient Incan life, all neatly, and, to date, silently, knotted along each strand. Urton hopes that by studying the quipus found, and searching for records made by Spaniards (who conquered the natives in that area), he will uncover a written document whose information corresponds to patterns and numerical values preserved in the knots and colors of the Leymebamba quipus. It will be the first such connection to be made between the quipus and that of a written language. It would also provide a rare and inspirational insight into a civilization where no other systematic record has been found.

     "My wildest hope is we can actually come closer to what we would call `reading the quipus'," Urton said in an interview with one newspaper reporter. "This is what the MacArthur does; it gives me several years to think and read and hypothesize and theorize and travel and do whatever it takes to try to understand what [the quipus] recorded."

     Urton will teach this fall and take his previously arranged sabbatical to travel to Seville, Spain next spring. There he will search the archives that hold the accounts of the first Spaniards who arrived in South America in the 1500s and begin his search for the words that will help untie strings so carefully knotted during an empire that reigned centuries ago.


Jarvis is director of media relations.
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