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Quipu: Recording Information

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on January 25, 2010 at 7:44:30 am


The Quipu

Reshma Rajagopalan


File:Inca Quipu.jpg

Unlike most flourishing civilizations of its time, the Incas lacked a form of writing. Their language, Quechua, was only spoken. Instead, they had a unique system of knots and ropes in which they could accurately record and store information. The word ‘quipu’ means knot in Quechua. During the Spanish Conquest, many quipus were destroyed, and only about 700 still exist today. Most that are found date from the Incas, however many other Peruvian tribes used them as well. The oldest quipu is 4600 years old! 


The quipu was capable of representing almost anything. They could keep track of births, deaths, weapons, agriculture, seasons, trade, battles, ordinances, royal speeches, leaders-to-be, economic productivity, historical events, and mita (a form of government taxation). Quipus could even help to build temples that were in exact alignment with the sun.


The quipu was made of a long, llama or alpaca wool rope, from which hung up to 2000 cords of varied lengths. From these, also hung secondary and tertiary cords. Since the information was sorted by increasingly detailed categories, a quipu’s cord may have represented the subject of history, while the secondary and tertiary cords represented something like Volume 1, and page 11. Usually, the most important information on the quipu would be recorded on the leftmost cord.


Each cord was a different color or thickness depending on the information it conveyed. For example, a red cord may show war, and a white cord could stand for peace. Each cord would also have many different knots tied in specific intervals and groupings.  These knots represented quantities. Tens and hundreds were shown with clusters of simple knots, and units were shown with long knots of several turns. The digit one was a figure of eight knot. Thus, to show that there were 452 pieces of gold paid in tax, a yellow cord would have a cluster of four simple knots, then, slightly farther down, another cluster of five simple knots, and even further down, a long knot with two turns. In some special quipus, the knots on a cord represented a syllable of a Quechua word. When pieced together, it could show a whole phrase, or just represent a mnemonic. 


Although the quipu was based on the decimal system and was incredibly systematic, it was incredibly difficult to read. Only quipucamayocs (quipu authorities) knew how to decipher the knots. All quipucamayocs were taught to carry out basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems. They created the quipus, and stored them.


In addition to preserving history, quipus were largely responsible for maintaining administration throughout the empire. Knowledge of the exact availability for weapons, food, and supplies helped the Inca become more prepared against invaders. It also helped them develop and improve their own tactics and technology. Also since quipus were compact and lightweight, messengers could carry a quipu all the way from Quito, to the capital, Cuzco, in just 3 days. Since the empire spanned a vast 2485 miles, this made for relatively fast, and very efficient communication. Essentially, these primitive computers had the information that tied together the Inca Empire, knotted in their memory banks.






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