Peruvian Quipu

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The Inca quipu still remains somewhat of a mystery to today's scholars, and while there are many plausible and likely hypotheses as to the true functions this device served, a specific and definite answer has yet, and may never, be uncovered. Some believe the quipu represents a form of proto-writing, while others feel it embodies a system of writing all on its own. But regardless of the different magnitudes of functionality that are thought to have been applied to the quipu by the Incas, it is unanimously agreed that it was an extraordinarily intricate system in which to store information.

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Brief Description

A typical quipu consisted of a number of pendent and often subsidiary pendent strings made from cotton and sometimes wool, that were suspended from a main horizontal cord. Knots representing numbers were tied into the pendent strings and occasionally into the main cord, and the strings were dyed various colors in order to define the different subjects to which the numbers referred.

Encoding: The Symbolic Systems of the Quipu

Quipus were assigned both a vertical and horizontal direction, causing both the encoding and decoding of a quipu to be a multi-directional, or nonlinear experience. "The establishment of the points where the strings were attached did not have to follow any set left-to-right or right-to-left sequence" (Ascher 33). The positions of the strings were set by their points of attachment, and it is the relative position, along with the colors and the knots, that rendered the recording meaningful. Essentially then, to be a quipumaker, one had to grasp the concept of transcribing data into a three dimensional, nonlinear medium. Similarly, the direct construction involved in recording information on a quipu depended to a large degree on the maker's tactile sensitivity and familiarity with the medium. "In fact, the overall aesthetic of the quipu was related to the tactile: the manner of recording and the recording itself [were] decidedly rhythmic; first in the activity, second in the effect" (32). Therefore, a lot of the skill required to efficiently manipulate a quipu stemmed from practicing the same motions again and again, until the motions came naturally and automatically.

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Quipu Diagram

As mentioned, the overall function of a quipu was to record and store information, although exactly what kind and to what level of sophistication is still debated. The process of encoding was very intricate and consisted of very specific and intentional manipulations of the string to create symbols that would correspond to any number of things, ideas, dates etc. However, there did not exist a universal book of codes in which to follow; each quipu constructed was very personal to the quipucomayac to which it belonged. Therefore, in order to formulate a better idea of the information stored in a given quipu, one can explore its individual components, but must always keep in mind its relation to the quipu as a whole.

  • Strings/Cords

Unlike media such as clay and paper in which symbols are applied to the surface, the strings of a quipu functioned as both the surface and the writing tool itself. In addition to being knotted and dyed, the quipucomayac had the option of positioning the cords on different levels, in different directions, and in relative positions ( Archer 31).

  • Knots

There were several different type of knots used in the making of a quipu, most of which have been determined to correspond to numbers. However, its believed that such numbers were used to represent both quantities, and labels.

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Samples of Quipu Knots
  • Space

Its not simply the knot, length, color and number of subsidiary pendents employed that must be taken into account when recording data using a quipu. A quipucomayac must also attend closely to the necessary spacial arrangement that must be created for accurate evaluations, specifically in terms ease and efficiency of entering and then recalling information.

  • Colors

The number of colors used on a particular quipu is dictated by the number of categories it encompasses. "So, too, a color system increases in complexity as the number of contexts it describes increases and as statements of relationship become involved" (Archer 31). Generally, the clarification of such relationships are encoded via the overall patterning used through out the quipu(Ascher 31).

-Candy-Cane Effect: two solid colors twisted together

-Mottled Fffect: two of candy-cane strings twisted together using the opposite twist direction

-Joining Effect: two solid colors that are joined so part of the cord is one color and the rest of it is another color.

Furthermore, the color coding of cords also functions to unite the largely tactile nature of the quipu with the visual. This is accomplished as color coded cords that are closely connected become intertwined with the resistor color system.

Was It Writing?

Mnemonic Knot-Records

There are many scholars that firmly believe the quipu to be an extremely advanced and detailed mnemonic device; a function that is reported as working both very efficiently and successfully. In noting how precisely traditions and records were preserved, Sir Clements Markham describes the passing down of the Paccari-tampu myth. "It is told by Garcilasso de la Vega, Cieza de Leon, Betanzos, Balboa, Morua, Montesinos, Salcamayhua and Sarmiento, all agreeing sufficiently closely to prove that precisely the same tradition had been handed down, with the same details, to their various informants" ( Markham 140). Similarly, according to Cyrus Day, the quipucamayas in charge of a quipu served as the official historians of the empire evidently relied on the usual psychological expedients-association, interest, concentrations, and repetition-in order to fix the facts in their memories (39-40)

Binary Coding

Perhaps the most interesting hypothesis for the potential meaning of these bundles of knotted cords is a theory proposed by Dr. Gary Urton, author of Signs Of The Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records. In his book, Urton suggests that the Inca quipuencoded more than just the previously thought commercial transactions, including the preservation of literature, poetry, science and any other information that could be documented via a system of writing. Urton describes "the beginnings of sketching out a theory of interpreting the hierarchical and asymmetrical signs of, especially, non-decimal khipus as the architecture for canonical literatures whose essential components would have been noted by the khipukamayuq and used as the framework for constructing narrative recitation" (Urton 164).

Urton argues that the systems of patterned differences in spinning, plying, knotting, numbers, and colors in the quipu are all binary in nature and interact with each other to form an information system with seven-piece sequences that function in a similar fashion to the binary language employed by computers. (Urton 140) Therefore, he concludes that we must continue the analysis of the quipu with the understanding that all structural and physical features interacted on a semiotic level.

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Marcia Archer holding a quipu

A Decoding Nightmare

For anyone aside from the original makers of quipus, the information encoded remains, at least to some degree, uncertain. Spanish chroniclers mentioned both cultural quipus, which "'recorded' laws, rites, treaties, speeches, and history" (Day 39), in addition to statistical quipus, which included a catalog of crops and agricultural produce, herds of domestic and wild animals, stores of wool and cotton, weapons and other military supplies - everything in the empire, in fact, that could be counted (Day 39). However, both cultural and statistical quipus employed many of the same manipulations to encode different data. Therefore, the question continuously arises as to how one can accurately asses the meaning of, say, a yellow string on one quipu versus that of a yellow string from another.

Pops and Hisses

Systems that employ color coding, or any type of representational signs and symbols, must remain relatively fixed and inflexible for it to flourish among a group of people. The meanings assigned to each color must be defined and agreed upon by everyone utilizing the system, and the amount of signs must remain reasonable to meet efficiency needs. Individual users can not alter the meaning signified by a particular color or length of a string without extending that change to be accepted unanimously. However, such crucial traits of a successful coding system are largely lost with the quipu. Of course, for the purposes of keeping information confidential, the random and flexible nature employed by the quipucomayacs prevented any sort of overarching associations to be made between the sign and the signifier and signified,

Furthermore, there are so many slight variations in the shape and style of the knots and colors used in quipus, with each slight alteration supposedly holding a different meaning. This raises questions as to what can be interpreted as what kind of knot; the encoding system of the quipucomayacs doesn't appear to leave room for differences that may result from variations in "hand writings" so to speak. While it is meant to be a very controlled and stylized process of recording, at least in terms of form, its signs and symbols overlap to the point where possible differences among its users are ignored. As noted by Ascher and Ascher, "Quipumakers differ from each other in the way that no two people write alike. Quipumakers also differ in the way that some people write more legibly then others (70)."

Formal Prohibitions

The quipu as a communicative device was highly selective; only the privileged, important men of the Inca community were taught how to create and interpret this system of recording. As aforementioned, these men were known as Quipucamayacs, or quipu-makers.

The Inca civilization functioned as a bureaucracy, which, according to Max Weber, is a type of administration that fundamentally means: "the exercise of control on the basis of knowledge" (Ascher 33). Therefore, for the Incas, knowledge truly did equal power, and that knowledge was measured in large part by the amount of records they had stored. Furthermore, Ascher and Ascher note the characteristic nature of a bureaucracy as one where its records are peculiar to itself, and remain that way. So to be a quipucamayac signified specialized knowledge, power and status, but also the responsibility of being an official historian for the Inca empire.

For this reason, it's understandable that quipucamayacs "never let their quipus out of their hands, and they kept passing their cords and knots through their fingers as to not forget the tradition which it was their function to remember" (Day 39-40). Perhaps one of the few times the quipucamayacs would separated from their quipus was for the purpose of sending a messgae. According to Cyrus Lawrence Day, "Trained runners called chasquis were stationed in pairs at intervals of about a mile along the imperial highways. Running at top speed and handing their quipus on, one chasqui to another, as in a relay race, they could transmit a message to Cuzco from two or three hundred miles away in twenty-four hours" (39).

The only addition to quipucamayas were Amautas, or learned men and councilors, who were also knowledgeable about the techniques necessary to understand the information stored by a quipu. While they didn't have a hand in composing them, the Amautas, along with the quipucamayas, played an integral role in the maintenance of Inca culture as traditions were passed down from generation to generation.

Works Cited

  • Ascher, Marcia, and Robert Ascher. "Civilization Without Writing - the Incas and the Quipu." The Media of Early Civilization. 28-33.
  • Ascher, Marcia, and Robert Ascher. Code of the Quipu. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan P, 1981.
  • Bingham, Hiram. "The Incas and Their Civilization." Lost City of the Incas. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1948. 4-10.
  • Day, Cyrus L. "Mnemonic Knots." Quipus and Witches' Knots. Lawrence: The University of Kansas P, 1967. 14-40.
  • Markham, Sir Clemets. "Language and Literature of the Incas." The Incas of Peru. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1910. 137-140.
  • Urton, Gary. Signs Of The Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 140-164.