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The Incas did not have any alphabetic writing system, but they did have the Quipu

Stefan Andrews

When the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 in Egypt during the French occupation of the country, few realized how significant this discovery might be. Over the subsequent decades, however, the plate turned out to be the key in decoding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, which had for ages persisted as a mystery among scholars.

In a perfect world, more artifacts like the Rosetta Stone would be found to help decipher other mysterious and mind-boggling writing systems. One such case is the Olmecs, an ancient civilization that once thrived in Mexico and is noted for the famous statues of “colossal heads” they produced.

When tablets with Olmec writing were unveiled in 1999, nobody had a clue what any of the 62 strange symbols might mean. Some of the signs take the shape of concrete objects like corn, but others appear to be quite abstract. And these just might be the oldest writing samples found in the Western part of the planet.

Another perplexing writing system lurks in Easter Island. When missionaries arrived there in the latter part of the 19th century, they came across several wooden tablets carved with mysterious symbols. But by this time, none of the native Rapa Nui people knew the meaning behind any of it.

Rosetta Stone. Author: Hans Hillewaert CC BY-SA 4.0

Rosetta Stone. Author: Hans Hillewaert CC BY-SA 4.0

As the natives explained, the Peruvians had managed to slaughter all wise men who knew how to decipher the inscriptions fully. They barely remembered how to read the rongorongo inscriptions. The Rapa Nui people found more practical uses for the wooden tablets, such as setting a fire or even as a fishing reel. Sadly, that’s how these tablets were lost by the end of the 19th century.

The Incan culture is probably one of the most mysterious of South American indigenous civilizations. Maybe the reason for that is the Incans’ strange writing system known as Quipu. This system is extraordinary for several reasons. It can’t be compared with any other writing system in the world and is yet to be entirely deciphered.

Quipu and Qullqa (Inca stockpiles), depicting Waman Puma de Ayala (about 1615)

Quipu and Qullqa (Inca stockpiles), depicting Waman Puma de Ayala (about 1615)

The Inca did not have any alphabetic writing to fulfill the purpose of communication and store knowledge. What they did make use of was the Quipu system, a simple and very mobile system that has striking capacities to store various data. The device would normally be composed of different colored threads that were knotted in many combinations. The most complicated quipu would integrate several hundred knots.

Primarily, the Incas used the quipu to keep a record of significant information of a statistical character. However, more research has shown that some of the devices were employed to memorize some of the most compelling stories and songs of the Inca folklore.

An example of a quipu from the Inca Empire, currently in the Larco Museum Collection. Author: Claus Ableiter CC BY-SA 3.0

An example of a quipu from the Inca Empire, currently in the Larco Museum Collection. Author: Claus Ableiter CC BY-SA 3.0

Traditionally speaking, scholars have debated that the quipu only served the Inca as a means of memory. But more accounts imply that these devices might have even been utilized to recapture the essential narratives of the Empire, possibly when its people faced the threat of its collapse and disappearance. In this context, the quipu resembled a vital alternative to the written language that the Incas simply did not have.

A quipucamayoc in El primer nueva corónica. On the lower left is a yupana – an Incan calculating device.

A quipucamayoc in El primer nueva corónica. On the lower left is a yupana – an Incan calculating device.

A normal quipu would consist of a string going horizontally, to which other strings in different colors were knotted so that they hang down. Both cotton and wool ones were used. The biggest quipu would have up to 1,500 such strings, all of which were woven in any way possible, having a distinct reference in reality.

Everything added meaning on the device: the color of the string, the specific shade of a color, the kind of knot tied, where it was positioned on the composition, how many knots in total were used, and so on. When different quipus were put together, they potentially revealed more meanings too.

Quipu

Quipu

Mathematics had a crucial role in the entire method. The quipu took advantage of a decimal positioning, and the most substantial decimal of all to be used was 10,000.

What helped to read the device was a portion of strings positioned the farthest from the principal string. That was the key to the entire encryption. A knot was capable of telling which number in between one and nine were represented. Depending on the type of knot, the meaning further changed and varied, for example a granny knot stood for number ten.

Quipu knots scripture in Peru. Author Peter van Der Sluijs CC BY SA 3.0

Quipu knots scripture in Peru. Author Peter van Der Sluijs CC BY SA 3.0

The Inca communities also had experts capable of thoroughly memorizing what a certain quipu meant. Reading the quipu, these people could tell which was the most significant information it contained, and what was of secondary importance. The person to undertake this task would usually pass their knowledge within the family, and so it went generation after generation. It was a well-respected job, but also a risky one. If anyone demonstrated gaps in their memory, punishments were unavoidable.

Quipu details Author Fedekuki CC BY SA 3.0

Quipu details Author Fedekuki CC BY SA 3.0

In the capital of Cuzco, experts who read quipu used it to store information of outstanding character for the empire, whether these were a conquest of the emperor or the bloodlines within the ruling family. Across the provinces, the quipu found more pragmatic usage by storing data about the population: how many people lived in the area and how many of them were male or female, how many children or how many served the army–all of it was inscribed in the strings and knots.

Representation of a quipu (1888)

Representation of a quipu (1888)

Many quipu devices were destroyed once the Empire took a path toward demise and destruction. First, there were the internal confrontations between the two brothers of Atahuallpa and Huascar, the second of whom was the 13th Inca Emperor and who eventually was overthrown by his brother. Plenty more were lost when the Spanish arrived.

Read another story from us: How Sequoyah, inspired by “talking leaves,” invented the Cherokee writing system

Today, there are only a few hundred surviving quipus, and we are limited in the extent to which we can understand the knots. Surprisingly enough, some shepherds who thrive on the Andes still make use of quipu to keep count of their cattle.