quipu in peru

Just as some ancient cultures had their languages and registration systems, the Incas were no exception. The Ancient Inca Empire did not have a written system or written language that could give us an idea about their lives. We can only rely on those stories and customs that were passed orally. Even though much of the history of the Incas was not recorded in writing, some interesting findings can be rescued. The Empire adopted a unique and rather ingenious system of recording information. We are talking about the Quipu, a quite creative and original counting system. And together with the Machu Travel Peru team, we want to tell you more about this unique registration system. For this, we have prepared an article where we delve into this interesting topic.

All you need to know about the Quipu and its function


About the quipu

The Quipu was a record of knots, a method of keeping records of various things. It was used by the Incas, although they adopted it from other ancient Andean cultures. It had the main function of keeping records as well as communicating information. The Quipu was the device that managed to shine in the absence of alphabetical and systematic writing. It could be thought of as a forerunner of laptops, as this simple device was very easy to carry. And not only that, but it also had a high degree of precision and flexibility. They are undoubtedly one of the archaeological treasures in Peru that leave us enchanted with the mysteries that surround them.

what is the quipu

It was used in a wide variety of colors, ropes, and knots. The knots were tied in different ways and at different heights to differentiate what was recorded. The Quipu could record dates, statistics, stories, and surprisingly it was capable of recording stories. These were represented abstractly, denoting those key episodes of traditional folk tales and poetry. Quipu was a clear replacement for the written language. Some scholars believe that the information was recorded in the same way as a cuneiform tablet or symbols painted on papyri. Therefore, instead of using painted or printed symbols, the Incas transmitted their ideas through different patterns of knots of different colors. If you are looking to get to know tourism in Peru in-depth, we advise you to look at the different museums and their examples of Quipus.


history of the quipu

The Incas were the last culture to use Quipus. But just as numerous techniques of the Incas predated the Empire, the Quipu predated the Incas. The use of this method dates back to 2600 BC. until 1532 A.D. Keep in mind that the Incas set out from a valley to conquer a large number of cultures. In these cultures, there were endless languages, topographies, and resources. One of the only ways to manage an Empire of this magnitude is by keeping detailed records of the different areas.

According to the Spanish records, the Quipus were kept and maintained by specialists. These were called Quipucamayocs or Khipukamayuq. Some shamans trained to understand the complexities of the system were also lucky to have them. Because of this, we know that it was not a technology shared by everyone within the Inca community. The famous 16th century Inca Garcilaso de la Vega historian mentions that these were carried by relay riders throughout the Empire. And these riders had the name of Chasquis. They carried the encoded information through the long Inca trail system. It was in this way that the different Inca rulers were kept up to date with the news related to the Empire. That is how they were found throughout different ruins in Peru.

The Spanish destroyed thousands of Quipus, as they did with other objects of Inca importance. Only about 600 of these are believed to remain in modern times, many of them found in excavations. Some of them were even found in local Andean communities. All of these are stored in local and international museums. The Incas were one of the last cultures to use the registration system. During the Spanish conquest, the Spanish introduced their own spoken and written language.


functions and meanings of quipu

Quipu comes from a word in the Quechua language, Khipu, which is also spelled as Quipo. This word translated into Spanish can mean “knot”. Indeed, the process of deciphering these systems is still ongoing. But scholars assume that the information is stored in the color of the cord, the length of the cord, the type of knot, the location of the knot, and the twisting direction of the knot. Quipu laces are often braided in color matching and sometimes have individual cotton or wool yarns distinctively dyed. All the cords are mainly connected by a single horizontal thread. But some elaborate examples with multiple subsidiary cords have been found. These start from the horizontal base in vertical or oblique directions.

Based on historical reports, the Quipus were used for the administrative monitoring of tributes. As well as for the records of the production levels of farmers and artisans of the Inca Empire. Although it is also believed that some of these may have represented maps of the Inca road network. They may even have functioned as mnemonic devices to help oral historians remember ancient legends. Some suppose that it could also have been a way to remember the family trees that were so important in Inca society. These were used by the communities and cultures that inhabited the Peruvian Andes. Even many of these predated the Inca Empire, so the Incas were the ones who adopted this method.


masters decrypting the quipus

And it was not surprising that the physical record was accompanied by an oral record. In this way, the potential of Quipu was maximized. For this, a group of professionals and teachers known as Khipu Kamayuq or Quipucamayocs emerged. These experts were in charge of memorizing the oral account that a particular record explained. And being a hereditary work, the oral record was transmitted from generation to generation. And despite being a job reserved for a few talented Incas, it was a job with a lot of pressure. This was because any mistake or memory error could be severely punished.

The Quipucamayocs are the equivalent of our current accountants. Or they could also be considered as secret agents with important and exclusive information. They were in charge of creating and deciphering the Quipus. These guardians were sent to different sectors of the Empire to collect and retrieve information. For more than 4,000 years, these masters played an important role in the Empire.


method of use of the quipus

In general, the Quipu is based on a horizontal rope that can be up to a wooden bar. Different colored ropes are hung from this base with numerous knots each. The ropes can be made of cotton or wool. The largest Quipus have more than 1500 threads. Of which these can be woven in numerous ways, suggesting a meaning within the register. Different shades of color are believed to carry specific meanings as well. And of course, the knots are believed to carry the main meaning within these records. Either the position of the knot, the type of knot, the number of knots, and the sequence in which they are presented. It is believed that the mix of these factors could carry a large number of potential meanings. Making this record much more than just a way of counting cattle.

The Quipu method was based on a decimal position system. And the largest decimal used was 10,000. This Inca system was very similar to our current system. Units were indicated at the knots furthest from the ropes. While the highest decimals were in the initial part of the strings. It is also known that the different knots could carry various meanings. In addition, examples were found where secondary chains could exist from a single rope. So it is supposed that they are a type of exception or separate importance. Finally, an individual Quipu could join others in a specific form and sequence to give it a different meaning.


new findings quipu

During the last years, the Quipu gained a new light with discoveries. Scholars have challenged the traditional way of looking at this ancient recording device. It is believed that it was much more than just a memory aid device. It is even suggested that the Quipu was related to different narrative registers. Therefore, Quipu could also have been a viable alternative to written language. But it is believed that this evolution of the Quipu took place during the last years of the Inca Empire. If you plan to visit Machu Picchu, take a tour of the Machu Picchu site museum. There you can find some examples of these registration systems.


Unfortunately, there are not many examples that have survived the passage of time. Besides, when the Inca Atahualpa took the leadership, numerous Quipus were destroyed. This was done to destroy the historical record that had remained of the Inca Huáscar, his half-brother and eternal rival. But after the Spanish conquest, the other surviving examples were also destroyed. The conquerors were very suspicious of the information that these records could keep. And because of this, very few models and examples of these incredible records have survived. Only a few hundred examples have remained today. Despite this, many Andean cultures continue to use it as a way to record information. It is very common in herders and in other rural areas to record the number of livestock with this method.


As you will see, the Quipus are still one of those fascinating mysteries of the ancient Inca Empire. If you want to know more about the captivating examples of Quipus, you can visit the many museums in Peru. These wonderful records of information can be seen in a wide variety of museums. We hope together with the team of experts from Machu Travel Peru to have been helpful. If you want to know more about our different tours in Peru and visits to museums, you can consult with our qualified advisers. Our team will be happy to help you make the trip of your dreams come true.

Peru has so much to offer, it can be hard to know where to start. With many years of experience in the tourism sector, Machu Travel Peru is happy to help with anything regarding your trip to Machu Picchu and any tours around it. Make your Machu Picchu experience an unforgettable one!