View Full Version : Who can read a quipu ?

12-08-05, 12:34
Does anyone know how to read the quipu ?
Does any other culture outside of the Incas have anything similar to the quipu ?

Khipu, or quipu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knotted_rope) From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Representation of a khipu
Khipu, or quipu, were recording devices used during the Inca Empire and its predecessor societies in the Andean region. A khipu usually consists of colored cotton cords with numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base 10 positional system. Khipus may have just a few strands, but some have up to 2,000 strands.

(Khipu is the word for "knot" in the Cusco dialect of Quechua; the kh is an aspirated k. In other dialects it's kipu. Quipu is the Spanish spelling.)

During the development of the system, there was no attempt to remaster, or recreate phonetic sounds as the script in European writings does. The khipu have yet to be fully deciphered, and there are a variety of theories as to how much information they contain.

1. Possible usage
2. Quipucamayocs
3. Conquest
4. Suppression and destruction
5. Status today
6. External links
6.1. Discovery of 'Puruchuco' toponym
7. References

1. Possible usage
Many uses that are known today for the khipu are: census counts, taxes, a count of items that should be bought or sold and basic numerical data. Inca administrators seemed to be the primary users of the khipu, using it as a way to keep track of their resources like livestock and farming. These administrators would be in charge of certain districts that divided up the empire.

Marcia and Robert Ascher, after analyzing several hundred khipus, have shown that most information on the khipus is numeric, and these numbers can be read. Each cluster of knots is a digit, and there are three types of knots: simple overhand knots; long knots made up of two or more turns; and figure-of-eight knots. A number is represented as a sequence of knot clusters in base 10.

Powers of ten are shown by position along the string, and this position is aligned between successive strands.
Digits in positions for 10 and higher powers are represented by clusters of simple knots (e.g. 40 is four simple knots in a row in the "tens" position).
Digits in the "ones" position are represented by long knots (e.g. 4 is a knot with 4 turns).

The digit 1 cannot be shown this way, because of the way the knots are tied; instead it is represented by a figure-of-eight knot.
Zero is represented by the absence of a knot in the appropriate position.
Because the ones digit is shown in a distinctive way, it's clear where a number ends. One strand on a khipu can therefore contain several numbers.
For example, if 4s represents four simple knots, 3L represents a long knot with three turns, E represents a figure-of-eight knot and X represents a space:

The number 731 would be represented by 7s,3s,E
The number 804 would be represented by 8s,X,4L
The number 107 followed by the number 51 would be represented by 1s,X,7L,5s,E

This reading can be confirmed by a fortunate fact: khipus regularly contain sums in a systematic way. For instance, a cord may contain the sum of the next n cords, and this relationship is repeated throughout the khipu. Sometimes there are sums of sums as well. Such a relationship could not exist if we were not reading the knots correctly.

Some data items are not numbers but what Ascher and Ascher call number labels. They are still composed of digits, but the resulting number seems to be used as a code, much as we use numbers to identify individuals, places, or things. Lacking the context for individual khipus, it's difficult to guess what any given code might mean. Other aspects of the khipu would have communicated information as well: color coding, relative placement of cords, spacing, and the structure of cords and sub-cords.

Some have argued that far more than numeric information is present and that the khipu are a primitive writing system. This is especially important as there is no surviving record of a written Quechua from before the Spanish invasion, something which is extremely rare for such an advanced civilization.

The August 12, 2005 edition of the journal Science includes a report Khipu Accounting in Ancient Peru by Gary Urton and Carrie J. Brezine for the first time identifying a khipu element for a non-numeric concept, a toponym for the city Puruchuco (near Lima), represented by three figure-of-eight knots at the start of a khipu.

2. Quipucamayocs
Quipucamayocs (Quechua khipukamayuq, "khipu-authority"), the accountants of Tahuantinsuyu, created and deciphered the khipu knots. Quipucamayocs were capable of performing simple mathematics such as adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing information for the indigenous people. This included keeping track of mita, a form of taxation. The Quipucamayocs also tracked the type of labor being performed, maintained a record of economic output, and ran a census that counted everyone from infants to "old blind men over 80". The system was also used to keep track of the calendar.

3. Conquest
Quipucamayocs were not the only members of Inca society to use the khipu. Inca historians used the quipu when telling the Spanish about Tahuantinsuyu history (whether they recorded important numbers or actually contained the story itself is unknown). Members of the ruling class were usually taught to read the khipu as part of their education. (See: Inca education)

In the early years of the Spanish conquest of Peru, Spanish officials often relied on the khipu to settle disputes over local tribute payments or goods production. Also, Spanish chroniclers concluded that quipus were used basically as mnemonic devices to communicate and record information in the numerical format. Quipucamayocs could be summoned to court, where their bookkeeping was considered legal documentation of past payments.

4. Suppression and destruction
The Spanish quickly suppressed the use of the khipu. The Conquistadors realized the Quipucamayocs often remained loyal to their original rulers rather than the King of Spain, and Quipucamayocs could lie about the contents of a message. The Conquistadors were also attempting to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism. Anything representing the Inca religion was considered idolatry and an attempt to disregard Catholic conversion. Many Conquistadors considered khipu to be idolatrous and therefore destroyed many of them.

5. Status today
Today only 600 Incan khipu survive. More primitive uses of the khipu have also continued in the Peruvian highlands. Some historians believe only the Quipucamayocs that made the specific khipu could read it. If this is true it cannot be considered a form of writing, but rather a mnemonic device. Many historians, however, have attempted to convert the khipu into a decipherable language because the Tahuantinsuyu was such a powerful Empire prior to its conquest by Spain; learning more about the Inca side of the story could possibly reveal an entirely new link to the past.

6. External links
Harvard University, The Khipu Database Project (http://khipukamayuq.fas.harvard.edu/WhatIsAKhipu.html) (gallery, archives, references, researchers, etc.)

Quipu: A Modern Mystery (http://www.sfu.ca/archaeology/museum/laarch/inca/quipue.html)
University of Wisconsin, Deparment of Anthropology How do quipus record information ? (http://www.anthropology.wisc.edu/chaysimire/titulo2/khipus/quipus.htm)
The Quipu, an Incan Data Structure (http://agutie.homestead.com/files/Quipu_B.htm) by Antonio Gutierrez, from "Geometry Step by Step from the Land of the Incas"
Geometry from the land of the Inca's (http://agutie.homestead.com/files/Quipu_B.htm)

6.1. Discovery of 'Puruchuco' toponym
Experts 'decipher' Inca strings (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4143968.stm) - BBC
Inca knotted strings tell ancient tale (http://www.cnn.com/2005/TECH/science/08/11/knotty.tales.ap/index.html) - CNN

7. References
Kenneth Adrien, Andean Worlds: Indigenous History, Culture and Consciousness. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2001. ISBN 0826323596.
Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher, Code of the Quipu: Databook, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1978. ASIN B0006X3SV4.
Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher, Code of the Quipu: A Study in Media, Mathematics, and Culture, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1980. ISBN 0472093258.

Frank D. White
12-08-05, 13:04
a comic book ! Thanks for taking the time to post that Lex, very interesting!