Reading knots

The Incas, much like the Maya, had a system of writing. At least if we by writing mean “a medium of human communication by means of signs.” Yet the Incas did not write their signs down, instead they used ropes with knots. They called it quipu, meaning “knot” in Quechua, the Inca language. A quipu consisted of a set of colored strings, perhaps as many as 2,000, usually made of cotton. On each string were knots tied at various distances from each other. The color of the string, its length, the number of knots on it and their distance from each other, all conveyed information. The Incas had quipu experts, trained to read the messages.

Economic relations in Inca society were organized by the state. For this reason a lot of statistical information was needed. State officials needed to know how much food that was produced, how much taxes they received, which products the government-run warehouses contained, and they needed data on births and deaths. All this information was conveyed by the quipu which easily could be dispatched by a courier from a provincial governor to the bureaucrats in Cusco.

Since the quipu were made of cotton, many have perished. Many were also destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors. There are today some thousand quipus in existence. In contrast to the hieroglyphs of the Maya, the quipu have not been deciphered. [Read more:Cracking the Mayan code“] Code-breakers and historians are still working on it. An international database project is responsible for collecting data and coordinating the research.

The knots seem to correspond to numbers, not letters or sounds. They would consequently be similar to a musical notation. A professor at Harvard believes he has deciphered a combination of knots which correspond to “Puruchuco,” the name of a village. The knots would thus function like a zip code. In Tupicocha, Peru, local officials still use quipu for record keeping, but there is no direct connection to the Inca usage. If scholars one day manage to read the quipus, chances are we will obtain far better data for example on how many people who lived in the Inca empire.

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