Incan Quipu

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Brief Description

The Inca quipu remains largely a mystery to today's scholars, and while there are many plausible and likely hypotheses as to 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.

It was the combination of these materials and processes together as a quipu that allowed the Inca bureaucracy to function, as they relied on it, at the very least, as a means to keep detailed accounts and records of everything that occurred under their rule. 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)



Encoding/Decoding: What Does It All Mean?

Mnemonic Knot-Records and Knot-Calendars

Binary Coding

Who Could Use It

The quipu as a communicative device was highly selective; only privileged people of the community were taught how to both create and interpret this system of recording.

Quipucamayocs were the trained officials in charge of the quipu accounts and all the information they stored -"Four quipucamayus were assigned to the smaller villages of the empire, and as many as twenty or thirty to the larger ones. 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 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. They 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).


In 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. Along with the quipucamayasintegral to the maintenance of Inca culture from generation to generation, but whether they were remembering with the help of the quipu or reading from it is still uncertain.

It's reported by Sir Clements Markham that Amautas, like the quipucamayas, used the quipu knots as mnemonic devices, noting how precisely traditions and records were preserved: "There is, for instance, 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).

However, while fully acknowledging the quipu's ability to improve memory significantly, Markham still denounces the idea that "this system of different coloured knots could do more than supply a sort of aid to memory, or memoria technica (Markham 140). 



Formal Prohibitions & Affordances