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The Quipu

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Saved by Diana Gukasov
on November 16, 2012 at 5:49:44 am

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] Each part of the Quipu was significant to the type of message, the color of the cord, its place, sixe, and the types of knots.[7]There were special "knot-keepers" that interpreted these knots called Quipucamayocs (khipukamayuq). To this day, there is no way of undertanding the meaning of the cords, although Andean shepards still use a sort of Quipu. [7]


 Many quipu were destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors during the 16th century. The Incan empire was conquered by Francisco Pizarro in 1532.The Spanish tried to get rid of everything that would connect the Incans to their old empire and stear them towards Roman Catholicism. The Conquistadors also believed that The Quipu held secrets, myths, stories, and ccould be used to document all the good and the evil that the Spanish had done to the Inca Empire. Avalos y Fugueroa, the leader of the Spanish party, felt threatened by the Quipu and burned as many Quipu as he could find and punished citizens found with them. 8]


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. [3] These knotted cords are twisted threads that were spun by the Incas. To this day, it is seen that most Quipu's have an average of 60 cords each. It was ruled out many years ago that there were messages within the Quipu's. Instead, a conclusion has been made that Quipu's were used for statistical data only. The main material that was made to form a Quipu was either camelid hair but mostly cotton. These materials varied in colors of white, beige, brown, and black although the Quipu's that were made out of camelid could be dyed with vegetable oil to create a variety of colors. The three main knots that were used were figure eight knots, long knots, and single knots.It is believed that these different clusters stands for different types of decimal based units. The higher up the cord you go the larger the cluster. [6] A Quipu was made with precise spacing and placement of knots on the rope. The knotted end dangled down off one side of the rope. [3] 


Reading the ropes consisted counting the knots from top to bottom. For example, if one rope was trying to  express the amound of 342, you would go from top to bottom, and it would read 3-4-2. If there was a 0 within the number, this would be shown by no knot. There would just be a space withing the string. A combination of the amount of knots and types of knots were significant to what the meaning of each knot meant. [2]

Qualitative Theory 
The Inca have been described as "the only mahor Bronze Age civilization without a written language." [8] 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 [6]. 

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.

[6] Urton, Gary. "Tying The Archive In Knots, Or: Dying To Get Into The Archive In Ancient Peru." Journal Of The Society Of Archivists 32.1 (2011): 5-20. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Nov. 2011.

[7]"Quipus." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2011): 1. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Nov. 2012.

[8] Mann, Charles C. "Cracking The Khipu Code." Science 300.5626 (2003): 1650. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Nov. 2012.


Original Author:  Derik Garrels

Additional Writing and Editting: Kate M. Fisher

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