Quipu: Ancient Writing System Used By The Incas

Quipu Strings
Quipu Strings

The motorcycle taxi driver had my number immediately. Every time I stepped out of my hotel in Mancora, there he was offering me a ride. It took longer for me to figure out what he was doing with the colorful cords tied to the handlebars of his machine. He knotted one cord whenever I paid him. Another cord seemed to be unraveling each time.

It was a form of double entry accounting; he tied one knot to record payments. The other cord recorded his expenses; a knot was untied for each tank of gas he purchased. It was a good system for this type of commerce because there’s no paper to blow away in the open air.

It is a system of recording transactions that dates back from the time of the Incas.

The Incas never developed a written language. However, their system of record keeping called Quipu is unique in human history. Inca recorded accounts with knotted string. Quipu means knot in Quechua, the language of the Incas.

Different colored twine had separate meanings. A community warehouse that stored corn, potatoes, bales of wool, and other commodities would designate a different color for each commodity. Individual strands were tied to a base string, connecting subdivisions of goods in logical association.

The Inca did not invent Quipu; it was used by earlier Andean cultures. Quipus have been found all over the Andes, and the earliest examples are over 5,000 years old. The Incas refined Quipu to a more sophisticated level.

The Inca numeric system is based on ten. Negative numbers and exponentials are shown by position. Different knots represent multiples. Zero equals no knot.

Quipu was a debit / credit system, similar to modern western accounting. A knot was tied on one strand and a corresponding knot was untied to represent transactions such as a unit of inventory brought into or removed from a storehouse.

Incan administrators also used Quipus to record census data. In the height of the Inca Empire countless Quipus were required.

Professional record keepers were called Quipucamayocs. These were experts in the language of knots; responsible for inventories, tax and labor records and census counts. Inca kings and nobles were trained in Quipu, but ambitious commoners could learn it and become Quipucamayocs.

Machu Picchu’s famous explorer, Hiram Bingham observed, “The cords were knotted in such a way to represent the decimal system and were fastened at close intervals along the principal strand of the Quipus. Thus an important message relating to the progress of crops, the amount of taxes collected, or the advance of an enemy could be speedily sent by the trained runner along the post roads.”

During the conquest by the Spanish the Incas destroyed some Quipus to protect vital defensive information. Once the Conquistadors realized the knotted strings were a form of communication they began to destroy them.

The Conquistadors never learned how Quipus worked and were suspicious of them. The Catholic Church declared them a form of idolatry and ordered the burning of all of them.

Today only 850 complete Quipus remain, preserved in museums and universities. They are intensely studied, and some researchers are certain that Quipu was more than just a numeric system.

Gary Urton, an anthropologist and Carrie Brezine a mathematician claim there are semantic as well as numerical elements in Quipus. They believe that Quipu was Inca writing with an alphabet formed of string. With so few examples left to study, we may never learn all the secrets tied up in the knots.

Examples of Inca Quipus can be seen at:

Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Arntopologia e Historia del Peru, Plaza Bolivar, Pueblo Libre, Lima , telephone 463-5070.

Museo Amano, Calle Retiro 160, Miraflores, Lima , telephone 331-2909.

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