Quipu

Unlike the city-states of Mesoamerica, the great Inca empire of South America produced no written records of which we are aware. However, information was encoded in mysterious knotted string devices known as quipu, or khipu. Many hundreds of examples are known, held in museums in Peru and all over the world, and new ones are still being uncovered. In 1996, thirty-two quipu were discovered in a remote region of northern Peru, in burial chambers built into a rock overhang surrounded by thick forest, close to a lake known as Lake of the Condors. At first the quipu appeared to have been mechanisms for recording fairly mundane numerical data, but there is reason to believe that at least some of them contained a more permanent record of sacred information relating, for example, to the calendar or astronomy. More intriguingly still, some of them were apparently read as texts by storytellers, so they seem to have conveyed histories and myths.

Quipu generally comprise a number (in some cases, as many as several hundred) of pendant strings attached to a single primary string. Sometimes some of the pendant strings have further strings (subsidiaries) hanging off them, and there are other minor variations, but overall the consistency in form is remarkable. Quipu can be bundled up, or held or laid out to display the various strings, which can be of many and various yarn types and colors. On the strings are knots. These normally contain up to nine turns, and it is generally accepted that they encode digits from one to nine. Furthermore, in the majority of quipu the knots on each string are carefully arranged in a way that suggests that they represent a number of two or more digits—in other words, a number expressed in a base-ten counting system the same as our own. (The Mesoamericans, in contrast, used a base-twenty counting system.) The lack of a knot in a significant place is used to signify the digit zero.

In addition to the numerical data contained in the knots, the quipu have the potential to convey information in a variety of ways, for instance in the spatial configurations of strings, the type of yarn used in each particular string, its color, its direction of twist, and so on. Unfortunately, we know next to nothing about how information was encoded and must try to reconstruct this from scratch. On the other hand, ethnohistory and archaeology do tell us something of the context in which some of the quipu were used. Accounts by early Spanish chroniclers, such as Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, attest to their use as tallying devices by local officials, perhaps recording the payment of tributes, or census information. Archaeologically, the fact that some quipu are found, like those already mentioned, among grave goods—evidently part of the personal paraphernalia of ordinary individuals—suggests that they were of significance to the individual or to their immediate household or local social group (ayllu). It is certainly plausible, then, that they contained a more permanent record of things of (local) cultural and historical relevance. Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, we know that some of the native storytellers who recounted histories, chiefly genealogies and myths to the early chroniclers, did so by "reading from," or at least by interpreting in some way, certain quipu.

A few of the better-known quipu have been studied for many years. But recently new large-scale and comparative analyses have become possible, thanks to an extensive database being compiled at Harvard University by Gary Urton and his colleagues. This work has revealed, for example, common sequences of numbers on different quipu, implying perhaps that local tallies were copied by regional officials, further up the Inca hierarchical chain, and incorporated into summaries covering wider areas.

Some quipu appear to contain calendrical information. One of the largest of the thirty-two found at Lake of the Condors, known simply as "UR6," has 762 pendant strings, 730 of which are systematically organized into twenty-four sets, each containing twenty-nine, thirty, or thirty-one strings. An obvious interpretation is that each set represents a synodic month, that is, a month defined by the phase cycle of the moon, and that the whole represents a period of two years. However, this does not necessarily mean that the purpose of the quipu was to represent calendrical information. The strings themselves contain knots representing numbers. The obvious conclusion is that quipu UR6 contained information (as yet unknown in nature) organized calendrically. If this is true, it shows that while no quipu may in itself have been a calendar, we can nonetheless retrieve information about calendars in everyday use within the Inca empire from certain quipu indirectly.

To judge from a sample of over 350 quipu studied recently by Urton, the knot information on about a third of all quipu does not resolve obviously into base-ten numbers. An intriguing possibility is that these quipu (or at least some of them) may have been "narrative" quipu, somehow providing information from which a practiced interpreter could have generated, or reconstructed, a story or account. We may never know the particulars of the information encapsulated in this way on certain quipu, or the nature of the process by which narratives were extracted. And yet some of the first tentative steps in identifying some of the non-numerical information contained on quipu may now have been taken. A few numbers much larger than the rest appear on quipu UR6, but only in sequences of three together. The suggestion is that these were not actually number triples as such but ayllu labels or identifiers, tags that identified the ayllu to which associated numerical information referred. If this interpretation is correct, then we have made our first identification, and tentative interpretation, of non-numerical information contained on a quipu.

Beyond the fact that they recorded tallies and used a base-ten numbering system, interpretations of the purpose of the quipu and the nature of the information contained in them have, until recently, remained largely speculative. This is now changing, thanks to painstaking analyses of the numerical data combined with new archaeological evidence. The process of decoding these idiosyncratic recording devices may just have begun.

See also:

Lunar and Luni-Solar Calendars.

Ceque System.

Lunar Phase Cycle.

References and further reading

Ascher, Marcia, and Robert Ascher. Code of the Quipu. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981.

Quilter, Jeffrey, and Gary Urton, eds. Narrative Threads: Accounting and Recounting in Andean Khipu. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Urton, Gary. The Social Life of Numbers. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

-. Inca Myths. Austin: University of Texas Press, and London: British

Museum Press, 1999.

-. Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-

String Records. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

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