In the majority of cases concerning how we have retrieved knowledge of ancient civilizations, their customs, history, and culture, it is most usually books and deciphering languages no longer used, that we have relied upon; For instance, decoding the Rosetta Stone, today a valuable possession of the British Museum, has helped scholars decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.
However, in the case of the Incas, there weren’t any books. This lost civilization that had once formed one of the largest empires on Earth, snaking from the one end of the South American plateau to the other, made no use of the written word. Instead, they used the Quipu, and for them, this portable device of knots and strings, primarily used for keeping statistical records, was much more than just keeping track of how many people lived in one area or how many livestock they had.
Not everything about the quipu is known to scholars and researchers. A quipu device was typically made out of several ropes tied together, with some of the most prominent samples counting more than hundreds of knots and strings. What made the quipu so substantial was that each segment of it embedded meaning, making use of its multiple knots, arranged together in a tight sequence, and representing any digit from zero to nine. No knots in the sequence would, for instance, denote a zero. Or five knots in line would represent the number five.
The Incas had mastered this encoded system of knots entirely, so they never bothered to made use of writing as civilizations very often elsewhere on Earth did. They would find everyday purposes in the quipu as a mean of keeping records straight. Each community, a village or town, would, for instance, have a quipu containing the information of how many people lived there and what were their occupations. How many of them were men and how many women? Who among them raised children, and who was in the army? How many families had livestock and whether it was llama or perhaps alpaca?
Like a science on its own, a person in the community was selected to learn how to read the quipu, and that was usually someone schooled to dedicate their life to read these devices. Had they demonstrated a flaw in their capabilities to tell what the quipu encoded, they were severely punished.
As more historical records suggest, the court of the king also had a special quipu, that would typically contain significant information about the history of the royal family, the lineage of the current ruler, as well as past ones. It also answered which were the achievements of the rulers and how the empire prospered during their reign.
What is interesting is, and according to only to more recent findings, at the demise of the Inca Empire (following internal clashes and the coming of the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century), the Inca reportedly also started to encode some of the most important episodes of their folklore and narratives using the quipu. That was more of figurative representations of the stories, but it was an absolute effort to assure that their culture won’t be lost in the case the empire crumbled.
Sadly, the empire did crumble, and many original narratives of the Inca folklore were lost in the process, which is why we have considerable gaps in our understanding and knowledge of this lost civilization.
Each quipu device also had a particular part that served as the “key” to decipher the rest of the knots and strings compositions. By looking at the key, the quipu reader was able to retrieve the information encoded in it, and different details further helped the reading process: the way the knots were done, what color they were, how many were arranged in the sequence, etc. Brilliant system, the least to say.
A manuscript discovered in Italy in 1886 and entitled Historia et Rudimenta Linguae Piruanorum, has revealed more details about the quipu, possibly telling more also about the “key” for reading the device. Written by 17th century Jesuits, the manuscripts contain fragments that say the Inca used “ideograms” or symbols prominent in the Incan art to help the knots and strings deciphering. An ideogram would in this case, either be used to denote a phonogram or to represent sounds, logograms, and even words. It was probably the first segment that the quipu reader took into account when pondering on a quipu.
As the rest of the device composition, the symbol was also woven with knots and strings and was typically positioned at the beginning of each piece.
Most quipu devices had diminished in the flames of the Spanish as they took control over the continent. Before all that happened, the quipu resembled a living and breathing communication system well-established in the boundaries of the Empire.
Many things about quipu remain a mystery, and we can answer more questions only with uncertainty. There are also very few quipu devices surviving today and a tiny amount of books providing more explanations about how it all worked and what were the fullest potentials of this method or “writing.”
Worth to mention, there are still shepherds who traverse the Andes, who still use the quipu for doing some basic counting of their cattle.
We also thought to remind you of how the ancient city of Petra looked like in 1994