Polychrome quipu. Cotton, camelid fiber and human hair. Probably, Wari (AD 500 – 1000), Andean Central Coast. Museo Banco Central de Reserva del Perú, N°3568. Photo, Denise Okuyamaguchi.This quipu with just Long Knots and without decimal order could be ‘narrative’. Their strings barreled with dyed yarns and the absence of Subsidiary Strings, support this hypothesis. It is notable in this quipu the use of human hair to make most of their cords.

'Narrative' quipu. Cotton and camelid fibers. Central Andean Area.  American Museum of Natural History, N° B-8705. Photo, courtesy of the AMNH. In this quipu, the knots are not in decimal order. Long Knots representing units are tied above Single Knots that refer to 10s and 100s.

Decision chain of a binary character in the construction of a quipu. Graphic taken from G. Urton, 2003.

Combination of natural colors in the yarns. Drawing, José Pérez de Arce.

Two ways to add color to the yarn. Drawing, José Pérez de Arce.

A Quipucamayoc with a multicolored strings quipu. Drawing, from the Spanish chronicler Martín de Murúa [1590].

Narrative Quipus?

About one-third of the quipus recovered to date do not comply with the customary numerical registration system principles, whether due to having different knots or not respecting the decimal number arrangement in their places of value. In addition, these quipus exhibit other characteristics that apparently are not part of the numerical system that has been deciphered thus far. These divergences, together with early historical accounts of these devices, suggest that some quipus may have served to register something more than just quantities, such as other types of categories, and even narratives.

The spin and ply directionality of the strings (“ZS” or “SZ”), the orientation in which the Pendant Strings were attached to the Primary Cord (obverse and reverse), and knot directionality (right or left) made it possible to store information in a binary fashion, a capability that was highly useful and suited to the dualistic and binary organization that characterized the Inka society, which normally divided each community in pairs of two-part sets, the sex of the individuals who were registered, and the seasons of the year. The color of the strings, produced by the combination of the different natural tones or dyes of the raw materials, also may have served to represent binary data, although according to information supplied by the Spanish chroniclers, it was used to encode more complex concepts. Thus, crimson was used to represent the Inka; yellow, gold; white, silver; red, warriors; and green, the dead. According to some historical accounts, the quipu may have also served to record stories, songs, poems and genealogies, meaning that it could have been a true writing system. From this perspective, the different colors added to the threads of the strings appear to have awarded the quipu a much more intricate codification system – yet to be deciphered – due largely to the effort made by the Inkas to maintain this strategic system of information storage incomprehensible to the Spanish invaders.