Ceramic vase with logographic writing. Maya Culture, AD 300 – 900. Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, 2083.

Logographic writing. Paper. Chinese Culture. Private Collection.

The quipu and writing

The ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Mesoamerica all invented independently writing systems based on “graphemes,” that is, the signs used for writing were produced by impressing marks on wet clay tablets, scratching marks on shell plaques, carving signs on limestone stelae, or painting signs on parchment. The first graphemes were primarily “logographic”; in other words, they represented objects and concepts, but were not sound-based sign units. Over time, however, phonetic graphemes, or images referring to the sounds of the names of objects, concepts and symbols were invented. Eventually, some systems of writing – the alphabets – began using signs for the most basic sounds of each language. Upon being combined, these signs formed syllables and words.

The Inkas differed from the rest of the ancient states in that they created (or inherited from an ancestral civilization) the quipu, a three-dimensional recording system based, not on graphemes, but on knotted strings.