Quipu with top strings. Cotton fiber. Laguna de los Cóndores, Chachapoyas Region, Perú. Museo Leymebamba del Perú, INC-0108. Photo, Yutaka Yoshii.

Quipu with string cords wrapped in different colored threads. Cotton and camelid fibers. Wari Empire (AD 500 – 1000), probably, pre-Inka quipu. American Museum of Natural History, N° 41.2/7679. Photo, courtesy of the AMNH.

Record-keeping with knots

The ancient Andean states are considered to have been the only civilizations of antiquity to have lacked a graphic writing system. However, the Inkas invented, or inherited, the quipu (“knot” in Quechua, the language of the Inkas), an ingenious knotted-string device for record-keeping throughout the Empire. Those State officials who made and kept quipus were called quipucamayocs.

After subjugating the Inka Empire in 1532, the Spanish conquistadors soon learned of the quipus, and in time discovered that the information they contained included statistical, quantitative records, as well as narrative accounts; in other words, information ranging from census records and tribute accounts to genealogies, poems, songs and the deeds and exploits of prominent empire figures.

Currently, there are approximately 600 quipu samples retained in public and private collections around the world. Deciphering the information they contain is a long and arduous task, and still far from complete. We may be able to say that a given string on a quipu contains the numerical value 234, but we cannot yet answer the question, “234 what?” In addition, we have not yet succeeded in deciphering the recording units and the means whereby the quipucamayocs recorded information for narrative readings of myths, histories, or genealogies. Thus, while we have a large quantity of Inka archives, only recently are we learning the rudiments to read them. Those engaged in the attempt to decipher the quipus face the challenge of demonstrating that the Inka administrators and “historians” maintained in these knotted-string devices a true system of writing.