Incan Quipu

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Brief Overview

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 wholly agreed that it was an extraordinarily intricate system in which to store information.

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

Encoding: The Symbolic System of the Quipu

What symbolic system is used in the medium to encode and decode messages?

  • Strings/Cords

-"Chords can be easily be moved until the last step in their attachment when they are fixed into position. Therefore, larger or smaller spaces between cords are an intentional part of the overall construction" -"The importance of these properties is that cords can be associated with different meanings depending on their vertical direction, on their level, on their relative positions along the main cord, and, if they are subsidiaries, on their relative positions within the same level." (29)

  • Color

- "As well as having particular placement, each cord has a color. Color is fundamental to the symbolic system of the quipu. Color coding, that is, using colors, to represent something other than themselves, is a familiar idea. But color systems are used in different ways." (29). "As useful as they are, these systems are inflexible. Some group, not the individual users, defines the system and, therefore, sets its limits" (30). "So, too, a color system increases in complexity as the number of contexts it describes increases and as statements of relationship become involved" (31). - "the number of colors on a particular quipu depends on the number of distinctions that are being made" (31). -"The overall patterning of the colors exhibits the relationships that are being represented" (31) -"…meanings for color and meanings for positions are used in combination with each other" (31).

Pg 31 - Candy can effect: two solid colors twisted together -mottled effect: two of these twisted together using the opposite twist direction -joining effect: two solid colors can be joined so that part of the cord is one color and the rest of it is another color.

Quipus can be assigned horizontal direction, allowing the terms before and after to be applied, and vertical direction, allowing the terms above and below to be applied. Learning to use a quipu required entirely different skills than the act of writing, as we know it today. Unlike media such as clay and paper in which writing is applied to the surface, the strings of a quipu functioned as both the surface and the writing tool itself; absolutely no stylus aside from the quipu was needed.

Furthermore, modern writing is done in linear composition as we move continuously in only one direction. However, 'writing' with a quipu was a nonlinear process. Due to the soft material being used

According to Ascher and Ascher "A group of strings occupy a space that has no definite orientation; as the [quipucomayoc] connected strings to each other, the space became defined by the points where the strings were attached. The establishment of these points did not have to follow any set left-to-right or right-to-left sequence. The relative positions of the strings are set by their points of attachment, and it is the relative position, along with the colors and the knots, that renders the recording meaningful. Essentially then, the quipumaker had to have the ability to conceive and execute a recording in three dimensions with color" (33). -composed his recording by tracing fingers in space as when, for example, he turned a string in an ever changing direction in the process of tying a knot. All of this was not preparatory to making a record; it was part of the very process of recording. -"The quipumaker's way of recording-direct construction-required tactile sensitivity to a much greater degree. In fact, the overall aesthetic of the quipu is related to the tactile: the manner of recording and the recording itself are decidedly rhythmic; the first in the activity, the second in the effect" (32).

  • Knots

Binary Coding

In Signs of the Inka Khipu, Gary Urton takes the analysis of the khipu to a new level by arguing that these bundles of knotted cords may very well be a kind of orthography. His theory suggests that the khipu encode more than commercial transactions, censuses, and tax roles. Indeed, it is now within the realm of possibility to imagine that the khipu may be a kind of writing and, in principle, may encode histories, genealogies, literature, poetry, science, or anything else that could be preserved in a writing system. Urton describes "the beginnings of sketching out a theory of interpreting the hierarchical and asymmetrical signs of, especially, non-decimal khipu as the architecture for canonical literatures whose essential components would have been noted by khipukamayuq3 and used as the framework for constructing narrative recitation."4 These oppositions include the direction of knot-tying, the direction of the twisting of the cords, and binary classes of color. Urton concludes, "A long knot of four can no longer simply be that quantitative value alone; rather, any given long knot of four henceforth has become an S- or Z-tied long knot of four on a Z/S- or S/Z- spun/plied dyed cotton or wool string attached to the primary cord in either recto or verso direction."5 Therefore, "we must begin to approach the study of khipu with the understanding that all structural and physical features interacted in the semiotic - that is, 'sign-using'processes of the people who looked at and in various ways consulted these objects."6

"I argue in this book that the systems of patterned differences in spinning, plying, knotting, numbers, and colors in the khipu are all binary in nature. These various components of the khipu recording system interact with eachother to constitue what we may call the ASCII of the khipu information system." (Urton 40)

-relied on seven-bit sequences - NOT ARBITRARY, BASED ON NATURE

- "In order to actually read a message in the khipu, we need something like a table, or a 'code book,' that gives the translation values for the particular binary-coded sequences for each unit of information encoded into a khipu.

Decoding: That's the Problem

talk about how there are a lot of kinds, statistical, cultural, knot calendars, mneumonic devices

The cultural quipus mentioned by the Spanish chroniclers "'recorded' laws, rites, treaties, speeches, and history" (Day 39), while the statistical quipus included a catalogue 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)

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). -"The quipucamayas who had charge of them and served as the official historians of the empire evidently relied on the usual psychological expedients-association, interest, concentrations, and repition-in order to fix the facts in their memories" (Day 39-40)


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. These were the Quipucamayacs, or quipu-makers. As aforementioned, 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 notes 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.

Understandably, quipucamayacs "never 'let their quipus out of their hands,' says Garcilaso, '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.

---add: this would cause a problem, as it has indeed done today, with allowing the medium to be used on a more common level--

Pops and Hisses

-no hand book to determine the possibile meanings of the sign system used

-There are so many slight variations to what can be interpreted as what kind of knot, doesn't leave room for people with different "hand writings" so to speak. While it is meant to be a very controlled and stylized process of recording, its doesn't allow any room for difference among its users. "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. (Ascher Ascher70)


-Binary code with the computer

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.
  • 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.