Book cover III Concilium Limense (1583), Madriti: Ex Officina Petri, Madrigalis Typographi, 1591. Fotografía, Luis Solar L.

A Spanish-Indian counter bearing quipu and book, according to Indian chronicler Guaman Poma de Ayala (1615).

Drawing of a current quipu in the area of Cuzco, Peru. Taken from L. Locke (1923).

Quipus in the colonial era

During the decades following the Spanish conquest of the Inka Empire in the sixteenth century, the Andean communities continued using quipus to keep their written records. The information they contained was vital to the colonial administrators for the initiation of their records. Several of these quipus were “transcribed” with the help of the last quipucamayocs into documents, currently conserved in various Spanish and Latin American archives.

Initially, the quipu and written records peacefully coexisted, but after thirty or so years, the relationship deteriorated and became a source of conflict and tension for the Spanish administrators. During these times, the Andean communities continually lost members through death, as well as abandonment by those intent on escaping the new Spanish tribute system, which included in may cases forced labor in the dreaded mines. The administrators, incapable of reading the quipus, often found their written records contested by the accounts of the native record-keepers. To put a stop to their use, in 1583, in the Third Council of Lima, the quipus were proclaimed idolatrous objects by the clerics, and were ordered destroyed. Nevertheless, these devices have continued to be used, albeit in a more simplified manner, in a few scattered, remote communities in some parts of the Andes up to the present day.