Knotty Problems: How the Quipu Kept the Written Records of the Inca

Why are Scholars Certain the Inca Kept Records in Knotted Strings?

Inca Quipo
Wikimedia Commons

In 1532, the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro "discovered" the Inca empire, known to its inhabitants as Tawantinsuyu. The Tawantinsuyu empire stretched a total length of 2,485 miles (4,000 kilometers), essentially the length of the South American continent between the Ancasmayo River at the border of modern day Colombia and Ecuador, all the way south to Santiago, Chile.

Tawantinsuyu was divided into four provinces, each with its own governor.

Kings held their position by divine right; mapping the family tree of ancestor worship was very elaborate and important indeed. The economic base of the empire was maize and llamas; an extensive trade network was in place, with state artisans working in gold, textiles, and polychrome ceramics, for selective distribution. The massive empire was connected by an intricate and extensive series of roads, over 18,000 mi (29,000 km) of them, supported by as many as 2000 rest stops and way stations.

The monumental and communal architecture of the Inca includes some of the most beautiful and technically amazing structures on the planet, such as Ollantaytambo, and the famous city of the clouds Machu Picchu. Irrigation canals, suspension bridges, paved and buttressed roads, and spectacular terraces are all characteristics of the Inca architectural style. The Inca Empire was substantial, sophisticated, and successful.

Written Records of the Inca

But it did not have what most of the rest of the world would recognize as a writing system. No carved stone, no papyrus, no cuneiform wedges pressed into clay, no signs painted on potsherds. Nothing like that.

If you think about it, a working empire without a writing system would truly be an amazing feat.

Empires require accountants. Who owes taxes, who is next in line for the throne, where are the best agricultural fields and how much do they produce?

How many people live in each segment of the society? What is the weather like in one section and how do we protect the people from drought or famine? When should we expect the winter? When is a good time to plant? How do we keep all those people, spread out so far along the Andes, in line and in communication with the centers? Furthermore, what about origin myths? What about the thousands of stories that are generated by people that form the basis of their religion, their society, their cultural memories? For a society to function, this information must be kept somewhere.

Quipu: A Most Unusual System

And sure enough, there was, in fact, a writing system among the Inka; but one so strange that it is going to take me all of the remaining words of this article to convince you of the facts. The Inka kept their accounts, their genealogy, their astronomical calculations, and (probably) their stories on a complicated system of cords and knots, called quipu (also spelled khipu).

We know this in part because once the Jesuit missionaries of the Spanish Inquisition recognized the range of function of the quipu, they did their best to destroy as many as humanly possible.

The description of the quipu as "a system of cords and knots" does not do justice to their complexity, and it is that complexity that is so convincing. Quipus have information stored in them using cord color, cord length, knot type, knot location, cord twist direction. Cords are often plaited in combined colors; cords sometimes have single threads of distinctively dyed cotton or wool woven in. Cords are connected mostly from a single horizontal strand, but subsidiary cords come off the vertical strands in oblique directions.

Modern Studies

There are only a few hundred Inka period khipu left--and in the intervening centuries, much of the ability to decipher the meaning of the knots and colors has disappeared. A recent collection of articles in a book called Narrative Threads, edited by Jeffrey Quilter and Gary Urton, describes how a handful of scholars is working towards cracking the code.

Anthropologist Frank Salomon has written an extensive report on what he learned from modern users of quipu in a Peruvian village. An extensive database on quipus has been assembled by Gary Urton and colleagues at Harvard University.

Most exciting, recent excavations at a handful of Wari sites have recovered quipus dated to 1200 years ago—the oldest firm evidence of quipu use in South America.

  • The History of the Khipu: South America's Writing Technology describes the archaeological and historical evidence for the oldest--and most recent--use of the quipu throughout South America.
  • Cracking the Khipu Code describes how researchers are working to decipher the meaning of the knots, colors and cord types, and just what the Inca might have used them for.
  • Narrative Threads is a fascinating book bringing together various theories on what the quipu might have meant to the people who communicated with them.