For the Quipu X.500 Directory System, see Quipu Directory.
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Aymara, Quechua, Puquina languina
3rd millennium BC - 17th century (some variants are used today)
Chinese knots, Wampum
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Quipus (or khipus), sometimes called talking knots, were recording devices historically used in the region of Andean South America. A quipu usually consisted of colored, spun, and plied thread or strings from llama or alpaca hair. It could also be made of cotton cords. The cords contained numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base ten positional system. Quipus might have just a few or up to 2,000 cords.
Archaeological evidence has shown that systems similar to the quipu were in use in the Andean region from c. 3000 BC. They subsequently played a key part in the administration of Tahuantinsuyu, the empire controlled by the Incan ethnic group, which flourished across the Andes from c. 1450 to 1532 AD. As the region was subsumed under the invading Spanish Empire, the use of the quipu faded from use, to be replaced by European writing systems. However, in several villages, quipu continued to be important items for the local community, albeit for ritual rather than recording use.
Quipu is the Spanish spelling and the most common spelling in English. Khipu (pronounced ˈkʰipu) is the word for "knot" in Cusco Quechua (the native Inca language); the kh is an aspirated k. In most Quechua varieties, the term is kipu.
3.2 Spanish invasion,
4 Continuing ritual use
4.1 Tupicocha, Peru,
4.2 San Cristóbal de Rapaz, Peru,
5 Archaeological investigation
6 Influence in popular culture
6.2 Film and television,
7 See also,
9 External links
9.1 Discovery of "Puruchuco" toponym,
The word "khipu", meaning "knot" or "to knot", comes from the Quechua language, the "lingua franca and language of administration" of Tahuantinsuyu.
"The khipu were knotted-string devices that were used for recording both statistical and narrative information, most notably by the Inka but also by other peoples of the central Andes from pre-Inkaic times, through the colonial and republican eras, and even - in a considerably transformed and attenuated form - down to the present day."
Archaeologist Gary Urton, 2003.
Most information recorded on the quipus consists of numbers in a decimal system.
In the early years of the Spanish conquest of Peru, Spanish officials often relied on the quipus to settle disputes over local tribute payments or goods production. Spanish chroniclers also concluded that quipus were used primarily as mnemonic devices to communicate and record numerical information. Quipucamayocs could be summoned to court, where their bookkeeping was recognised as valid documentation of past payments.
Some of the knots, as well as other features, such as color, are thought to represent non-numeric information, which has not been deciphered. It is generally thought that the system did not include phonetic symbols analogous to letters of the alphabet. However Gary Urton has suggested that the quipus used a binary system which could record phonological or logographic data.
To date, no link has yet been found between a quipu and Quechua, the native language of the Peruvian Andes. This suggests that quipus are not a glottographic writing system and have no phonetic referent. Frank Salomon at the University of Wisconsin has argued that quipus are actually a semasiographic language, a system of representative symbols--such as music notation or numerals--that relay information but are not directly related to the speech sounds of a particular language. The Khipu Database Project (KDP), begun by Gary Urton, may have already decoded the first word from a quipu--the name of a village, Puruchuco, which Urton believes was represented by a three-number sequence, similar to a ZIP code. If this conjecture is correct, quipus are the only known example of a complex language recorded in a 3-D system.
Numeral systems by culture
East Asian numerals
Other historical systems
Positional systems by base
Non-standard positional numeral systems
List of numeral systems
Marcia and Robert Ascher, after having analyzed several hundred quipus, have shown that most information on quipus is numeric, and these numbers can be read. Each cluster of knots is a digit, and there are three main types of knots: simple overhand knots; "long knots", consisting of an overhand knot with one or more additional turns; and figure-eight knots. In the Aschers' system, a fourth type of knot--figure-of-eight knot with an extra twist--is referred to as "EE". 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 four turns). Because of the way the knots are tied, the digit 1 cannot be shown this way and is represented in this position 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 is clear where a number ends. One strand on a quipu 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: quipus 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 quipu. Sometimes there are sums of sums as well. Such a relationship would be very improbable if the knots were incorrectly read.
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 quipus, it is difficult to guess what any given code might mean. Other aspects of a quipu could 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 quipua are a writing system. This would be an especially important discovery as there is no surviving record of written Quechua predating the Spanish invasion. Possible reasons for this apparent absence of a written language include an actual absence of a written language, destruction by the Spanish of all written records, or the successful concealment by the Incan peoples of those records. Historians Edward Hyams and George Ordish believe quipus were recording devices, similar to musical notation, in that the notes on the page present basic information, and the performer would then bring those details to life.
In 2003, while checking the geometric signs that appear on drawings of Inca dresses from the First New Chronicle and Good Government, written by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala in 1615, William Burns Glynn found a pattern that seems to decipher some words from quipus by matching knots to colors of strings.
The August 12, 2005, edition of the journal Science includes a report titled "Khipu Accounting in Ancient Peru" by anthropologist Gary Urton and mathematician Carrie J. Brezine. Their work may represent the first identification of a quipu element for a non-numeric concept, a sequence of three figure-of-eight knots at the start of a quipu that seems to be a unique signifier. It could be a toponym for the city of Puruchuco (near Lima), or the name of the quipu keeper who made it, or its subject matter, or even a time designator.
Beynon-Davies considers quipus as a sign system and develops an interpretation of their physical structure in terms of the concept of a data system.
Khipukamayuq (knot maker/keeper, i.e., the former Inka record keepers) supplied colonial administrators with a variety and quantity of information pertaining to censuses, tribute, ritual and calendrical organization, genealogies, and other such matters from Inka times. Performing a number of statistical tests for khipu sample VA 42527, one study led by Alberto Sáez-Rodríguez discovered that the distribution and patterning of S- and Z-knots can organize the information system from a real star map.
See also: Inca education
Quipucamayocs (Quechua khipu kamayuq, "khipu-authority"), the accountants of Tawantinsuyu, created and deciphered the quipu knots. Quipucamayocs could carry out basic arithmetic operations, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. They kept 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. According to Guaman Poma, quipucamayocs could "read" the quipus with their eyes closed.
Quipucamayocs were from a class of people, "males, fifty to sixty", and were not the only members of Inca society to use quipus. Inca historians used quipus when telling the Spanish about Tahuantinsuyu history (whether they only recorded important numbers or actually contained the story itself is unknown). Members of the ruling class were usually taught to read quipus in the Inca equivalent of a university, the yacha-huasi (literally, "house of teaching"), in the third year of schooling, for the higher classes who would eventually become the bureaucracy.
In 1532, the Spanish Empire's conquest of the Andean region began, with several Spanish conquerors making note of the existence of quipus in their written records about the invasion. The earliest known example comes from Hernando Pizarro, the brother of the Spanish military leader Francisco Pizarro, who recorded an encounter that he and his men had in 1533 as they traveled along the royal road from the highlands to the central coast. It was during this journey that they encountered several quipu keepers, later relating that these keepers "untied some of the knots which they had in the deposits section of the khipu, and they re-tied them in another section of the khipu."
The Spanish authorities quickly suppressed the use of quipus. The conquistadors realized that the quipucamayocs often remained loyal to their original rulers rather than to 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 Roman Catholicism. Anything representing the Inca religion was considered idolatry and an attempt to disregard Catholic conversion. Many conquistadors considered quipus to be idolatrous and therefore destroyed many of them.
Continuing ritual use:
Anthropologists and archaeologists working in Peru have highlighted two known cases where quipus have continued to be used by contemporary communities, albeit as ritual items seen as "communal patrimony" rather than as devices for recording information.
In 1994, the American cultural anthropologist Frank Salomon conducted a study in the Peruvian village of Tupicocha, where quipus are still an important part of the social life of the village. As of 1994, this was the only village where quipus with a structure similar to pre-Columbian quipus were still used for official local government record-keeping and functions, although the villagers did not associate their quipus with Inca artifacts.
San Cristóbal de Rapaz, Peru:
The villagers of San Cristóbal de Rapaz (known as Rapacinos), located in the Province of Oyón, keep a quipu in an old ceremonial building, the Kaha Wayi, that is itself surrounded by a walled architectural complex. Also within the complex is a disused communal storehouse, known as the Pasa Qullqa, which was formerly used to protect and redistribute the local crops, and some Rapacinos believe that the quipu was once a record of this process of collecting and redistributing food. The entire complex was important to the villagers, being "the seat of traditional control over land use, and the centre of communication with the deified mountains who control weather".
In 2004, the archaeologist Renata Peeters (of the UCL Institute of Archaeology in London) and the cultural anthropologist Frank Salomon (of the University of Wisconsin) undertook a project to conserve both the quipus in Rapaz and the building that it was in, due to their increasingly poor condition.
The archaeologist Gary Urton noted in his 2003 book Signs of the Inka Khipu that he estimated "from my own studies and from the published works of other scholars that there are about 600 extant khipu in public and private collections around the world."
According to the Khipu Database Project undertaken by Harvard professor Gary Urton and his colleague Carrie Brezine, 751 quipus have been reported to exist across the globe. Their whereabouts range from Europe to North and South America. Most are housed in museums outside of their native countries, however some reside in their native locations under the care of the descendants of those who made the knot records. A table of the largest collections is shown below.
Berlin Ethnologisches Museum
Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde
near Lima, Peru
Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Antropologia e Historia
Leimebamba, Amazonas, Peru
Museo Temple Radicati
Museo de Ica
Ate District, Lima, Peru
While patrimonial quipu collections have not been accounted for in this database, their numbers are likely to be unknown. One prominent patrimonial collection held by the Rapazians of Rapaz, Peru, was recently researched by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, Frank Salomon. The Anthropology/Archaeology department at the University of California at Santa Barbara also holds one quipu.
Quipus are now preserved using techniques that will minimise their future degradation. Museums, archives and special collections have adopted preservation guidelines from textile practices. Quipus are made of fibers, either spun and plied thread such as wool or hair from camelids, such as alpacas, llamas and camels, or cellulose like cotton. The knotted strings of quipus were often made with an "elaborate system of knotted cords, dyed in various colors, the significance of which was known to the magistrates". Fading of color, natural or dyed, cannot be reversed, and may indicate further damage to the fibers. Colors can darken if attacked by dust or by certain dyes and mordants. Quipus have been found with adornments, such as animal shells, attached to the cords, and these non-textile materials may require additional preservation measures.
All textiles are damaged by ultraviolet (UV) light. This damage can include fading and weakening of the fibrous material. Environmental controls are used to monitor and control temperature, humidity and light exposure of storage areas. The heating, ventilating and air conditioning, or HVAC systems, of buildings that house quipu knot records are usually automatically regulated. Relative humidity should be 60% or lower, with low temperatures. High temperatures can damage the fibres and make them brittle. Damp conditions and high humidity can damage protein-rich material. As with all textiles, cool, clean, dry and dark environments are most suitable. When quipus are on display, their exposure to ambient conditions is usually minimized and closely monitored.
Quipus are also closely monitored for mold, as well as insects and their larvae. As with all textiles, these are major problems. Fumigation may not be recommended for fiber textiles displaying mold or insect infestations, although it is common practice for ridding paper of mold and insects.
Damage can occur during storage. The more accessible the items are during storage, the greater the chance of early detection. Storing quipus horizontally on boards covered with a neutral pH paper (paper that is neither acid or alkaline) to prevent potential acid transfer is a preservation technique that extends the life of a collection. Extensive handling of quipus can also increase the risk of further damage. The fibers can be abraded by rubbing against each other or for those attached to sticks or rods by their own weight if held in an upright position.
When Gary Urton, professor of Anthropology at Harvard, was asked "Are they quipus fragile?", he answered, "some of them are, and you can't touch them - they would break or turn into dust. Many are quite well preserved, and you can actually study them without doing them any harm. Of course, any time you touch an ancient fabric like that, you're doing some damage, but these strings are generally quite durable."
Ruth Shady, a Peruvian archeologist, has discovered a quipu or perhaps proto-quipu believed to be around 5,000 years old in the coastal city of Caral. It was in quite good condition, with "brown cotton strings wound around thin sticks", along with "a series of offerings, including mysterious fiber balls of different sizes wrapped in 'nets' and pristine reed baskets. Piles of raw cotton - uncombed and containing seeds, though turned a dirty brown by the ages - and a ball of cotton thread" were also found preserved. The good condition of these articles can be attributed to the arid condition of the 11,500 feet (3,500 metres) elevated location of Caral.
Even when people have tried to preserve quipus, corrective care may still be required. Conservators in the field of library science have the skills to handle a variety of situations. If quipus are to be conserved close to their place of origin, local camelid or wool fibres in natural colors can be obtained and used to mend breaks and splits in the cords. Even though some quipus have hundreds of cords, each cord should be assessed and treated individually. Quipu cords can be "mechanically cleaned with brushes, small tools and light vacuuming". Just as the application of fungicides is not recommended to rid quipus of mold, neither is the use of solvents to clean them. Rosa Choque Gonzales and Rosalia Choque Gonzales, conservators from southern Peru, worked to conserve the Rapaz patrimonial quipus in the Andean village of Rapaz, Peru. These quipus had undergone repair in the past, so this conservator team used new local camelid and wool fibers to spin around the area under repair in a similar fashion to the earlier repairs found on the quipu.
Influence in popular culture:
The treasure hunt of Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt novel Inca Gold centers on the decryption of a quipu's message.,
In The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, the blinded wise ones use quipu to store all their knowledge in a vast unlit library.,
In Lettres d'une Péruvienne, it is said that Zilia treasures her quipus.,
In Ian Watson's The Martian Inca, a renascent Inca civilization deciphers the quipu coding scheme, and the modern Inca revolutionary movement uses the quipu for secret communications.,
In Andre Norton's Forerunner Foray, the first ancient civilization that the protagonists are sent to (that of Turan & Singakok) uses quipus as a secret method of information storage.,
In Patrick O'Brian's The Wine Dark Sea, Stephen's Peruvian guide is warned of a possible ambush high in the Andes via a messenger carrying quipus.,
In Patrick Rothfuss's "The Kingkiller Chronicle", the ancient people of Yll used knots as a written language.,
There is an Argentinian publishing house called Ediciones Quipu.,
Film and television:
In the Daniel Boone episode "The Gun" (first aired on February 3, 1966), a Shawnee Indian gives Daniel Boone a quipu so that he can pass safely through Shawnee land.,
Several imagined examples of quipu usage occur in the animated series The Mysterious Cities of Gold.,
In the Japanese series Kamen Rider Amazon the titular character had grown up in an Incan culture, and could read quipu.,
In the April 27, 2007 episode of Numb3rs (The Art of Reckoning), a character uses a quipu to keep a private journal. He misidentifies the quipu as Aztec in origin.