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Signalling & Secret Communication

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  • Signalling & Secret Communication


    The first recorded use of smoke signals comes from the 3rd Century BC in China when an elaborate system of beacon towers was set up in conjunction with the “Great Wall”. Warning could be given along the wall of approaching enemies over long distances. The smoke (during the day) or the fire (at night) could be seen over 400 miles away.
    Hollywood “wild west” movies frequently portrayed Indians signalling to one another with puffs of smoke from fires stoked with grass and generated by blanket-smothering (and also signalling with broken pieces of mirror salvaged from somewhere in some instances). The question arises (often the case for many things seen in such movies) as to how accurate these portrayals might be.

    Painting by Frederic Remington

    The journals of Lewis and Clark describe several occasions when they adopted what is suggested as the Native American method of setting the plains on fire to communicate the presence of their party or their desire to meet with local tribes. The more interesting question is whether sophisticated signalling beyond simple “I’m here” or “someone’s coming” messages have any tradition of use.

    Ward Beers has compiled a comprehensive summary of the evidence for “line of sight” signalling among Native Americans in “Fire and Smoke: Ethnographic and Archaeological Evidence for Line-of-Sight Signaling in North America” for which the abstract reads:

    “The use of long distance communication through signaling by the native inhabitants of North America is documented both ethnographically and archaeologically. While the use of long-distance and line-of-sight signaling may be most applicable to sedentary societies under stress, its documented use by nomadic and semi-nomadic groups indicates that use of such signaling systems may well extend back to the first appearance of humans in the Americas. The information in this article is the product of thesis research regarding line-of-sight communication in the Jumanos pueblo cluster of central New Mexico. Early on in the research the apparent lack of ethnographic or archaeological evidence for communication by visual means such as fires, flashes, or smoke raised the question of whether such communication was simply the product of Hollywood westerns. Continued research, however, revealed the sources in this article. While this article contains no new information regarding long distance visual communication in North America, and particularly the Southwest, my hope is that the compilation of information in one source may be of use to researchers in the future.”

    You can read the full paper here (but you need to register if you want to download it):

    Mode of Signalling

    There seems to have been no universal “language” for the meaning of smoke signals and the number or size of puffs of smoke may have been pre-agreed between the sender and receiver – perhaps even for specific occasions and circumstances. Signals would have been visible to friend and foe alike, so a cryptic meaning was in many ways desirable.

    There were however some commonalities across many tribes in that – for simple messaging – a single puff of smoke was usually a call for attention, two puffs were usually a sign that all was well and three puffs were usually a warning, danger or distress signal/call for help.

    Although messaging by smoke was not generally complex, puffs of smoke could be (and sometimes were) manipulated into spiral, zig-zag and other forms as well as bursts of different length. The colour of the smoke could also be altered to some degree according to what was being burnt.

    Smoke Signalling by the Yamana/Yaghan People

    In South America, it is also recorded that the Yaghan-speaking Yamana people of Tierra del Fuego on the southern-most tip of the continent used smoke-signalling for purposes such as advertising the presence of a beached whale. Wider notification that a plentiful source of food and other resources had arrived was needed quickly so that the carcass could be harvested before it began to rot.

    They may have also used smoke signals for other communication purposes. The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first named the region the “land of smoke”, later changed to “land of fire” (Tierra del Fuego), inspired by what he believed were many signalling fires spreading the (probably quite alarming) news of his arrival off the coast.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

  • #2

    Prior to the cultural disruption from European colonisation, sign language using the hands was widely used by Native Americans from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up to Calgary, Canada – and especially by Plains Indians. In addition to being an alternative to spoken languages within communities, it also served as a common means of communication between nations speaking at least 40 different languages.

    The Hand Talk website has a wealth of information about the history and linguistics of American Indian Sign Language, including images of the signs used, their meanings and video samples:

    The original source of the information is the National Anthropological Archives -and- National Human Studies Film Archives at the Smithsonian Institution.
    You can also download a copy of a transcript of “The gesture speech of man”, an interesting address given by Colonel Col. Garrick Mallery to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of Cincinnati, Ohio in August 1881 here:

    Mallery comments on the origin, nature, usage and uniformity of “Indian signs” and makes comparisons with other cultures.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.


    • #3

      The principle of encoding stories, messages, calendars or statistics for accounting purposes into knots in cordage existed in many ancient cultures but its origins in the Americas come from the Andean region of South America. Such items are generally known as “talking knots” or “quipus” (also kipus/khipus) from the Cusco Quechua word (the native Inca language) meaning “knots."

      Origins in South America

      They first appear in the archaeological record in the first millennium AD of the Inca Empire and were often used as a means of transmitting important information that would only be understood by the recipient. The Inca used highly trained and extremely fit runners known as “Chasquis” (also Chaskis) to deliver these messages along with royal delicacies such as fish and other small goods. The messengers used staging posts supplied with food and water, working in relays such that a message could be delivered from Cusco to Quito (over a thousand miles) in under a week.

      Chasqui runner with a pututu (a trumpet made of a conch shell), a quipu in which information was stored, and a quëpi on his back to hold items to be delivered.
      A quipu usually consisted of coloured, spun and plied llama or alpaca hair and occasionally cotton, sometimes supplemented by pieces of finely-carved wood. The colour, shape and arrangement of the knotted cords encoded the information. The meanings were not completely universal (and not always intended to be understood by everyone) but green cords often signified grain and red cords often signified soldiers for example. Numerical information was usually in decimal form with one knot meaning the number 10; two knots for 20; a double knot for 100. They served to aid record-keeping for ownership purposes, taxes and tributes, census information, military organisation and also served as calendars.

      Use at the Time of the Spanish Conquest

      Their use was noted by the Spanish in 1532 at the beginning of their conquest of the Andean region and the Spanish themselves initially recognised their usefulness in settling disputes over local tribute payments or productivity. The Spanish later became mistrustful and suppressed their use, burning many of the finest examples. They could easily be altered, could contain hidden information and were suspected to contain information about Inca history and forbidden religious practices. The Spanish chronicler Cieza de Leon reported that some types of knot represented words. Later manuscripts suggest that they even contained poetry.

      There’s more information in the Wikipedia entry here:

      There is recent research suggesting that the knots actually represent a language but this is unproven. Oddly, of all the major Bronze Age civilizations, only the Inca of South America appear to lack a written form of communication.

      Use in North America

      Cords with similar, but less sophisticated usage also spread via Mexico into the southern portion of what is now North America. A possible adaptation of the principle also exists in the wampum belts of eastern North America which often contain pictographic symbols as part of their functional purpose and communication.

      Use in the Pueblo Revolt

      Although the Pueblo Revolt against Spanish rule in New Mexico has multiple root causes, it was precipitated by Governor Juan Francisco Treviño shortly after he took office in 1675 and rounded up what he perceived to be 47 troublemakers – shamans, mostly from Tewa pueblos. Claiming them to be “sorcerers”, four were sentenced to be hung (one committed suicide rather than be executed) and the others were brutally publically flogged and then imprisoned.

      Emboldened by the fact that large numbers of Spanish soldiers had been mobilised to fight the Apache, the Pueblo leaders moved in force to Santa Fe where the prisoners were held and forced them to be released. One of those released was a shaman from San Juan pueblo known as Popé (but called “Ohkay Owingeh” by the Pueblo people) and it was he who brooded long and hard over a plan to oust the Spanish.

      In the late spring of 1680 at a meeting in Taos, Popé briefed messengers to communicate the plan to the Pueblo villages via pictographs on pieces of deerskin. He had fixed the timing for the revolt as the first night of the new moon in August and planned that all of the Pueblo villages (with the exception of the Spanish-loyal Piros) would rise up against the Spanish simultaneously for maximum effect. The pueblos were spread across a wide area (including the distant villages of the Zunis and the Hopis, over 300 miles away) so, early that month, he organised young boys to act as “runners” and carry a coded message to all concerned.

      Two of those runners were Tesuque, named as seventeen year olds Nicolas Catua and Pedro Omtua. They left their village of Dry Spot at daybreak on 9th August 1680, charged with carrying the plan to the Tanos, San Marcos, and La Cienega, but leaders from those villages were reluctant to take part in the rebellion. When the boys reached San Cristobal, the local but Spanish-appointed governor (known as a “tuyo”) took to his horse and raced off to the Spanish settlements of Rising Leaf Lake and Turquoise Town to raise the alarm. Word reached Santa Fe the same day and the Spanish sent forces to arrest the two runners for interrogation. The two boys bravely revealed nothing under torture and were ultimately hanged, but the Spanish nevertheless had some warning of an impending revolt. Alerted to the fact that the Spanish had been forewarned, Popé ordered the revolt to begin immediately, although some areas had already jumped the gun and sprung into action.

      According to a summary from an interrogation conducted by the Spanish on 11th December 1681 (more than a year after the revolt) a Keres Indian named Pedro Naranjo from San Felipe described how Popé’s directions were carried out:

      “[Popé] took a cord of maguey fiber and tied some knots in it which indicated the number of days until the perpetuation of the treason. He sent it through all the pueblos as far as Isleta, there remaining in the whole kingdom only the nation of Piros who did not receive it; and the order that the said Pope gave when he sent the cord was under strict charge of secrecy, commanding that the war captain take it from pueblo to pueblo…. the cord was passed through all the pueblos of the kingdom so that the ones which agreed to it [the rebellion] might untie one knot in sign of obedience, and by the other knots they would know the days which were lacking; and this was done on pain of death to those who refused to agree to it. As a sign of agreement and notice of having concurred in the treason and the perfidy they were to send up smoke signals to that effect in each one of the pueblos singly.”
      I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.