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The Quipu

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Saved by Diana Gukasov
on November 15, 2012 at 4:50:21 pm

The quipu (Khipu) is a system of knotted colored cords used by the Incas and its predecessor societies, in the Andean region, to store massive amounts of information important to their culture and civilization. (3)






The history of the quipu dates back about forty-six hundred years. Caral, the earliest civilization, didn’t have any form of written communication and this worked out well for them. They were an organization that didn’t need a form of written communication. (4)


Every group or organization had a form of modern writing, except the Incas, which used the quipu. The quipu was a complicated system of knotted cords of different colors, and was used as a record-keeping system. (3) Many quipu were destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors during the 16th century. Two hundred quipu dating back to about 650 AD, have been found. The discovery of the early civilization of Caral, has provided us with some very important information. This information is that the quipu served as a way to keep records for the Incas. We don’t know how the Incas attained this information from the civilization of Caral, unfortunately. It has also been proven, that there was a record keeping system as far back as forty-six hundred years ago. The most important element regarding the discovery of the quipu, is that it showed us that there was actually a form of written communication during this time. It has shown us that the quipu was one of the first forms of communication, known to man. (4)


 Numerical Theory


The quipu consisted of knotted cords, sometimes colored, that were connected together in one line. This was done with precise spacing and placement of knots on the rope. The knotted end dangled down off one side of the rope. (3) 


(3)For example, let’s say we have a Quipu in front of us. The rope that is on the left is yellow, the one next to it is blue, the rope in the middle is green, and so on. The yellow colored rope on the left means gold, because it is a yellow color. The blue rope represents water, and the rope in the middle, which is green, means vegetable. We have been to different places and want to record how much gold, water, and vegetables, we have collected. We find that we have 342 pieces of gold. With this information, we would take a piece of rope and color it yellow. We then would go down that rope and make three knots. We then would go below that knot, and make four knots, and then travel further down, and make two knots on the piece of rope colored yellow. When you read this rope, you would go from top to bottom, and it would read 3-4-2. We would use the same formula regarding the amount of water we have. When it comes to vegetables, though, we would employ a new formula. The only difference is, the number of vegetables we have, is 105. With this being said, there is no knot for  the number zero, so that one reading the quipu, wouldn't read it as 15, they would read it as 105. The spacing in a Quipu was very important, so that one could read it correctly. (2)
Qualitative Theory 
The numerical formulas to the Quipu were very informational for finding quantitative data. Yet to this day, there is no way of understanding the referance of the numerical data. Quipus were used as an accounting tool for the Incas. Each piece of string stands for something, but archiologists still do not have the means of interpereting it. 

Implications of the Quipu

It was important to know how to read the knots and various colors of the quipu. You could only do so much with it, though. One could only put small amounts of information on each line. If you used more than one line, the quipu became too large, and at times a mess to read. (5)




[1] Conner and Robertson, "Mathematics of the Incas" 29 March,2008. January 2001. <http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/HistTopics/Inca_mathematics.html>

[2] "Quipu" Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 31 March, 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 April 2008, at 19:17. <


[3] "The Quipu, Pre Incan Data Structure, 5000 Years Old Caral" 29 March, 2008. 5 October, 2007. <http://agutie.homestead.com/FiLEs/Quipu_B.htm>

[4] Hirst Kris, "South American’s Oldest Writing System" 29 March,2008. 2008 About.com, a part of The New York Times Company. <http://archaeology.about.com/od/ancientwriting/a/caralquipu.htm>

[5] Ascher, Marcia and Robert Ascher. "Civilization without Writing-The Incas and the Quipu." Communications in History: Technology, Culture, Society. 5th ed. Ed. David Crowley and Paul Heyer. Boston: Pearson, 2007.


Original Author:  Derik Garrels

Additional Writing and Editting: Kate M. Fisher

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