Just as some ancient cultures had their languages and registration systems, the Incas were not the exception. The Ancient Inca Empire did not have a written system or language that could give us an idea about their lives. We can only rely on those stories and customs that were passed orally. Consequently, much of the history of the Incas was not recorded in writing. However, some interesting findings can be rescued through the Quipu. In this form, the Empire adopted a unique and rather ingenious system of recording information.
The Quipu was a quite creative and original counting system based on ropes and knots, where the Inca administrative account was kept, and some extremely important facts were even recorded. Quipus were used since 2600 B.C.by Andean cultures, predecessors of the Incas, and nowadays are still being studied. 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 main topic.
All you need to know about the Quipu and its function
- The Quipu, a forerunner of laptops
- The meaning of Quipu
- History of Quipu
- Quipu functions
- The Quipucamayoc
- How to read the Quipu
- Quipu new findings
- Quipu models that survived
The Quipu, a forerunner of laptops
The Quipu was a collection 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 that they conquered. 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 the Incas’ alphabetical and systematic writing. Many scholars say that It could be thought of as a forerunner of laptops, as this simple calculation 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.
It was used in a wide variety of colors, ropes, and knots. The knots were tied in different ways and at different heights from the based rope to differentiate what was recorded. The Quipu could record dates and statistics, and surprisingly, it was capable of recording stories (It is according to recent studies). The Quipus were decrypted abstractly, denoting those key episodes of traditional folk tales and poetry, and were 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.
The meaning 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 each 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. Also, 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.
History of Quipu
The Incas were the last culture to use Quipus. But just as numerous techniques of the Incas predated the Empire, the Quipu is no exception. 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 numerous Sierra cultures. In these cultures, there were endless languages, topographies, and resources. One of the few ways to manage an Empire of this magnitude is by keeping detailed records of the different areas.
The famous 16th century Inca Garcilaso de la Vega historian mentions that the Quipus 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 (Called Qapaq Ñam). It was in this way that the different Inca rulers were kept up to date with the news related to the Empire and its most distant towns.
Once the conquest arrived, the Spanish destroyed thousands of Quipus, as they did with other objects of Inca importance. They introduced their own spoken and written language, Spanish. Displacing the Quipu to oblivion. Only about 600 of these are believed to remain until modern times, many of them found in excavations and Peruvian ruins. Fortunately, some were found in local Andean communities where people still live. Nowadays, all these Quipus are stored in local and international museums. For this reason, the Incas were one of the last cultures to use this registration system.
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. Today, many scholars are still studying its use as a system of record for stories, legends, and myths. Therefore, the Quipus may even have functioned as a mnemonic device to help oral historians remember ancient legends. Also, 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.
According to the Spanish records, the Quipus were kept and maintained by specialists in reading them. These were called Quipucamayocs or Khipukamayuq. Even, there were a few shamans trained to understand the complexities of the knot system. Apart from them, no one else could and knew how to read the Quipus. Because of this, we know that it was not a technology shared by everyone within the Inca community.
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, these groups of professionals and teachers known as Khipu Kamayuq or Quipucamayocs emerged. Besides recording quantities, these experts were in charge of memorizing an oral account that explains a particular fact and recorded it in the Quipu. And being a hereditary work, the record was transmitted from generation to generation. For this reason, it was a job with a lot of pressure and destined only for a few. This was because any mistake or memory error could be severely punished.
Nowadays, the Quipucamayocs could be considered equivalent to our current accountants. Or they could also be considered secret agents with important and exclusive information. For example, the common information given among different Machu Picchu tours, affirms that the citadel could have been a residential neighborhood inhabited mostly by women. It could have been extracted from a Quipu record.
The Quipucamayoc was in charge of creating and deciphering the Quipus. Also, these guardians were sent to different sectors of the Empire to collect and retrieve important information. For more than 4,000 years, these masters played a main role in the Inca Empire.
How to read the Quipu
In general, the Quipu is based on a horizontal rope, 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, which can be woven in numerous ways, suggesting a meaning within each 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. Also, it is believed that the mix of these colors, knots, and ropes could carry many potential meanings. Making this record much more than just a way of counting cattle.
The counting Quipu method was based on a decimal position system. Generally, 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, close to the main rope. It is also known that the different knots that could exist and carry various meanings. In addition, examples were found where secondary chains could exist from a single rope. So, it is supposed that it could be considered as 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.
How to read it?
The method to use them is knowing to read the knots. Deciphering the content that a Quipu keeps is true Peruvian Art. Fortunately, it’s not as hard as you think. There are three different knots. In this form, the knots represent the quantity (represented in decimals) the closer to the base chord, the higher the value. The further away from the main rope, the lower value. A space separates the knots. In this form:
The single knots can go:
- Ten Thousand
The long knots
- These go depending on the turns of rope that the knot has
The “eight” knot
- This means one
In this sense, if you find in a rope, a group of two single knots (close to the base), followed by a space, and after a long knot with five turns, we can interpret it as the number 25.
On the other hand, if we find, in a rope, a group of 4 single knots, followed by a space, after a group of 3 single knots, followed by a space and, finally 3 “eight” knots, we can interpret it as the number 433.
A final example is if we find a group of 7 single knots, followed by a space. After, a group of 5 single knots, followed by a space, after a group of 3 single knots followed by 6 “eight” knots, we can interpret it as the number 7,536.
Quipu new findings
During the last years, the Quipu gained a new light with discoveries found in them. 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 system. 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.
Quipu models that survived
Unfortunately, there are not many examples that have survived the passage of time. As the Quipus will be scarce that when Hiram Bingham visit Machu Picchu in 1911, did not find any of them in his excavation. Besides, when the Inca Atahualpa took the leadership of the Empire (after a civil war against his brother Huascar for the throne), 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. Happily and despite this, many Andean cultures continue to use it as a way to record information. It is very common for herders and in other Peruvian and Bolivia rural areas to record the number of livestock with this method. Also, you can find them as Peruvian souvenirs in many local handicraft markets along Peru.
“WE LEARN THE ROPE OF LIFE BY UNTYING ITS KNOTS”
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 has been helpful. If you want to know more about our different options in tourism 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.