At the height of its power, the Inca Empire spanned a vast expanse of the Andes, rivaling the largest empires of the Old World. To effectively manage their expansive territory, the Incas developed a unique system of recording information using specially woven cords with knots, known as quipus. These objects served as a means of numerical record-keeping, but their significance potentially extended much further, encompassing the recording of language itself. This article delves into the mysteries of the quipus, exploring their structure, colors, and materials, as well as the ongoing efforts to decipher their secrets. From insights provided by Garcilaso de la Vega, a Spanish-Peruvian writer of Inca heritage, to recent research by anthropologist Sabine Hyland, the article uncovers the fascinating world of the Inca Empire’s knot-based communication system.
The Incredible Administrative Efficiency of the Inca Empire
At the height of its power, the Inca Empire, locally known as Tawantinsuyu, meaning “the four parts together,” spanned 5,000 kilometers along the Andes, stretching from present-day Ecuador in the north to central Chile in the south. Yet, this vast empire (at one point, the largest one on the planet) thrived without inventions that were considered crucial for the development of civilizations in Eurasia, such as the wheel, iron, or draft animals. The Inca society’s structure has been described differently by historians and anthropologists, with interpretations ranging from slave-owning or feudal to socialist or proto-communist. As noted by D’Altroy (2014), depending on the author, Tawantinsuyu has been viewed as an exemplary form of political society in almost every way, except for representative democracy. However, all historians agree on one thing: the Inca Empire possessed an unparalleled level of administrative efficiency, maintaining precise records of all available resources and manpower.
The Incas had access to crucial information necessary for governing such a vast state. They knew about natural features, such as the lengths of streams and rivers and the terrain. They had data on arable land and crop yields, mineral wealth, hunting and fishing, and even a comprehensive census of the entire population, which, according to some accounts, exceeded fifteen million people. However, what set the Andean masters apart from other civilizations was their unique method of recording information. Instead of using paper, stone, wood, or any known form of writing, the Incas developed a system using specially woven cords with branching structures and knots called quipu. Even centuries after the empire’s decline, quipus continue to captivate historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists. However, there is still no definitive answer as to what precise information an individual quipu could contain (and in what way).
The Structure and Complexity of Quipus: Knots, Cords, and Colors
Each quipu has a distinctive structure centered around a main cord, which is horizontally positioned and notably thicker than the rest. Pendant cords are then suspended from this main cord. These pendant cords hold a specific number of small knots, typically dozens, which are woven in the middle and at the ends. Sometimes, multiple pendant cords are grouped together with an additional ribbon. Additional sub-cords, and even sub-sub cords, can be attached to the pendant cords. As a result, the most intricate quipus display a tree-like arrangement, with up to four or five levels of branching discernible.
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Quipus also exhibit a remarkable range of colors and materials used in their knitting. Each cord possesses its own distinct color, and at times, two or more threads of different colors are intricately twisted together, resembling the appearance of sugar cane. This clever technique allows for a multitude of unique combinations to be achieved using only a few fundamental colors. Furthermore, individual cords vary not only in the material from which they are crafted but also in the texture produced by skillfully twisting the cords in specific directions.
The quantity of cords found in individual quipus preserved in museums varies from a few dozen to several hundred. When considering the potential combinations of colors, thicknesses, textures, materials, and the number of knots on each cord, it becomes evident that the capacity for storing diverse data on a quipu is vast. The question that arises is: how does one access that data?
Garcilaso de la Vega and the Insights from His Work
One of the earliest written sources that offer potential answers comes from a fascinating figure named Garcilaso de la Vega, who was also known by the nickname El Inca. Born in Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire, shortly after its conquest by the Spanish, Garcilaso was the son of a conquistador and an Incan noblewoman. At the age of twenty-one, he embarked on a journey to Spain, where he would spend the rest of his life and receive an education infused with the spirit of the Renaissance.
In 1609, during his later years, El Inca published a work that delved into the daily life, culture, economy, and politics of the Incas. Drawing heavily on his personal memories and the oral traditions he had encountered during his youth in Peru, his writings gained immense popularity in Western Europe in the years that followed. This work became something of a “bestseller” and played a significant role in shaping romanticized notions about the Inca civilization, as well as sparking diverse interpretations of its social structure.
Regarding quipus, El Inca provides us with some valuable insights. He explains that the variation in cord thickness served to denote exceptions to specific rules. For instance, if a quipu recorded the number of married men in a particular region, a thinner cord would signify the count of widowers. However, the question remains: How were these numbers actually represented?
El Inca offers precise details: a knot with one to nine loops indicated a number, and its placement on the cord denoted units: tens, hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands. For example, a cord that features knots with five, followed by seven, then three, and finally nine loops would represent the number 5739. Interestingly, this reveals that the Incas employed a decimal system akin to the one used today. What’s even more fascinating is that the larger gap between two nodes represented zero (a concept that, for instance, cannot be expressed in Roman numerals). Consequently, the Incas were capable of “weaving” any number between 1 and 99999. It is important to note that while the Incas had their own version of an abacus, the quipu served solely for recording numbers and not for performing calculations.
Deciphering the Quipus: Numbers, Colors, and Their Meanings
The numbers themselves lack significance if the person deciphering the quipu does not understand their meaning. This is where differently colored cords come into play. Unfortunately, De la Vega does not provide detailed information on this aspect but offers a general suggestion: yellow cords could represent gold, white for silver, and red for warriors. D’Altroy (2014) adds that subsequent writers expanded this color scheme to include additional meanings — black for the passage of time, green for agriculture, and purple for the nobility. Therefore, a green cord, for instance, could indicate the quantity of corn, while a yellow cord attached to it would signify its value in gold.
However, it remains unclear whether the meaning of colors was universally consistent for all quipus or varied depending on the nature of the census. Furthermore, the significance of multi-colored cords with intertwined colors remains ambiguous. For instance, did a purple and white cord represent the amount of silver owned by a nobleman? While many questions remain unanswered, we can speculate that the Incas utilized quipus to record valuable resources, the quantities of food in storehouses or crops in the fields, the civil and military structure, and even the family lineage of entire dynasties, including the length of each emperor’s reign.
Contrary to popular belief, the use of quipus did not fade into obscurity shortly after the Spanish invasion; in fact, they continued to be employed in certain regions of the Andes until the middle of the twentieth century. Throughout the colonial and post-colonial periods, quipus coexisted with written documents in Spanish. Their purpose remained diverse, encompassing the recording of tax data, legal proceedings (not only in local native courts but also in some courts overseen by the Spanish), and conducting censuses. This suggests that the Spanish colonizers heavily relied on an existing administrative system that they adapted to suit their own requirements. Particularly interesting are cases where quipus were seamlessly integrated into written documents. Wooden boards are preserved, containing Spanish words, while numbers, represented by knots, were affixed alongside the corresponding names.
Beyond Numerical Record-Keeping: Quipus as Written Documents
Garcilaso de la Vega holds significant importance as a source of information on the quipus, particularly due to his Inca heritage. However, it is worth considering whether his interpretation of quipu functions is the only one possible. After all, de la Vega was not a quipucamayoc, a member of the select group who possessed the knowledge of creating and deciphering quipus. It is plausible that he was only familiar with the “everyday” method of reading quipus, while the additional functionalities were reserved for the privileged few. Could it be that quipus hold a much deeper significance beyond the longstanding beliefs?
Most researchers lean towards the notion that quipus served as a form of record-keeping device. However, such quipus would only prove useful to those who constructed them or possessed direct knowledge of their contents. While the standard interpretation of quipu functions is already intricate, some contemporary scholars take it a step further and propose that quipus were utilized for recording language itself.
There is historical evidence that lends support to this thesis. Spanish eyewitnesses, upon encountering the still relatively intact Inca civilization, claimed that quipus were used for writing histories, rulers’ biographies, and even for personal correspondence. Despite these assertions, no one has yet managed to decipher quipus as written documents. Nevertheless, there is a theory that proposes the possibility of such decipherment.
To explain this theory, it is essential to highlight the distinction between two types of preserved quipus. The majority, approximately two-thirds, consist of cords with knots that represent numerical information. The remaining quipus, despite their branching structure, lack knots and exhibit a broader array of colors and materials. Scholars have long been perplexed by this other type of quipu, with many assuming their purpose was purely decorative. However, fieldwork conducted by Sabine Hyland, an American anthropologist at the University of St Andrews, unveils fresh insights into these colorful quipus.
A Three-Dimensional Script?
In 2015, Hyland visited a remote Peruvian village, where the local community graciously granted her permission to examine two quipus revered as sacred objects. These quipus hold ritual significance and are used during traditional festivals as part of the initiation rituals for new members entering the esteemed circle of village elders. During these ceremonies, the senior members would convey to the initiates that these quipus contain vital information concerning their community’s history.
Taking seriously the villagers’ claims that these two quipus are copies of messages exchanged between local leaders, Hyland decided to investigate whether they were indeed correspondence and not mere records. Intriguingly, both quipus were crafted in the mid-18th century, a considerable period after the Spanish invasion. The two quipus in question adhered to the conventional structure, featuring a main cord accompanied by numerous auxiliary cords (ranging from 200 to 300). However, what set them apart from traditional quipus was the absence of knots, a conspicuous indication, according to Hyland, that these quipus were not employed for numerical recording purposes.
After the locals insisted that the quipus should not be touched with gloves but only with bare fingers in order to “feel their spirit,” Hyland came up with the idea of how to approach the interpretation. Paying attention to the colors and materials, she determined that six different materials of animal hair, primarily vicuña and alpaca, were used to make the quipus, along with fourteen different colors. While the colors were visible to the naked eye, the subtle differences in the hair could only be detected through touch. Furthermore, certain cords were fashioned from a single material and displayed a solitary color, while others were “blended,” incorporating two different hair types and up to four distinct colors. Lastly, each cord could be twisted in either the ‘S’ or ‘Z’ direction.
With this in mind, we can calculate that the number of possible combinations of materials, colors, and directions of twisting exceeds sixty thousand! Despite this vast array of possible cord types, Hyland discovered that only 95 combinations were present on both quipus, with certain combinations occurring more frequently than others. Hyland (2017) posits that if these quipus indeed functioned as a form of script, they would align with a logosyllabic system where each cord corresponds to a syllable. The count of approximately a hundred logograms would also be consistent with known syllabaries.
Even though the quipus that Hyland studied are dated to the 18th century, it is worth noting that there are similar quipus predating the Spanish conquest and they display the same structural features and knitting techniques. It is plausible that these technical resemblances are accompanied by similarities in the recording of language. If these preliminary findings hold, it would imply that the Inca Empire possessed a truly unique three-dimensional script — a script unparalleled in the world, as it needs both visual and tactile senses for comprehension. Remarkably, this would mark the only known instance where a script requires the engagement of two senses simultaneously. Although further research is necessary, there is hope that future discoveries will unveil written sources from the time of the Incas, shedding more light on this intriguing civilization.
D’Altroy, Terence N. (2014). The Incas. JohnWiley & Sons Ltd.
Hyland, Sabine (2017). Writing with Twisted Cords: The Inscriptive Capacity of Andean Khipus. Current Anthropology, 58(3), 412-419.