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The Digital Inca: Let’s Talk About the Quipu

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Forget what you may have heard about Peru’s pre-Columbian civilizations being illiterate.

It’s time to rethink and revalue the extraordinary writing system of the Incas and what it means to us today.

If you’ve lived in Peru for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard someone claim that the Incas and other pre-Columbian civilizations had no form of writing.  Sometimes, they even try to spin this in a positive way: The only great civilization without writing! 

This is well meaning and all, but a recent article by Rolando Arellano published in El Comercio echoes my own sentiments.  I openly admit that I ripped off his “Quipus, the Ancient Digital Peru?” (Los quipus, el antiguo Peru digital?) headline for my title.  Think of it more as an homage; his article inspired this investigation and the ideas he presents have the power to transform how we think about the Inca civilization.

We’ll get to that in the conclusion.

The 1st point that Arellano makes that I want to mention is that it is illogical, even absurd to suggest that the Incas would have created such a large and organized empire with roads, massive fortresses, agricultural planning, and an organized military with nothing more than memory and oral communication.  

What happened to the quipu then and why don’t we know more about it?  The answer is cultural genocide. 

The Spanish invaders destroyed, obliterated, pulverized as much of the Inca way of life as they possibly could, including almost all of the quipus (pictured in the cover photo).  They destroyed literally thousands of them.

Only 600 quipus survive today.

The quipu (or khipu in modern Quechua writing), with its cords and knots, is well known as a record-keeping tool for the Incas.  However, there are many who believe that to call it simply a record keeping tool is a profound underestimation of its actual complexity.

The quipu is an advanced writing system that uses cords, knots, and spaces instead of “painted or impressed symbols” like other forms of writing.  Like most past civilizations around the world, it was only an elite few who were privileged enough to be literate in society.

The Spanish managed to exterminate enough of these elites and their devices that the decoding of the quipu is a modern mystery.

Kris Hirst from ThoughtCo has this to say:

“Although the process of deciphering the quipu system is still just beginning, scholars surmise (at least) that information is stored in cord color, cord length, knot type, knot location, and cord twist direction..”

Some have even dared a more in-depth analysis of the quipu.  They have determined that there is a strong numerical and mathematical element to the design and that the Incas were relatively mathematically advanced.  As if one look at Machu Picchu couldn’t tell you that.

(One of the largest quipus can be seen at the Larco Museum in Lima. Photo: Verónica Isabel Calvo Niño)
The Spanish were thankfully unsuccessful in their cultural genocide.  Today, Andean farmers still use far less advanced quipus to count livestock.  There are also many students, researchers, and curious individuals working to unravel the mysteries of quipu today as we are experiencing a revaluing of indigenous cultures here in Peru as Peruvians become more aware of how truly unique their cultural heritage is to the world.

So were the quipus advanced memory aids or full-blown writing systems?

Or something in between?  Perhaps the most likely explanation is that they were developing, evolving under the Inca Empire to a point where they could tell narratives, and given enough time may have become a total replacement for a writing system.  The Spanish invasion interrupted and permanently damaged this important stage of technological advancement that could have produced a truly revolutionary system of communication.
Back to Rolando Arellano’s article from El Comercio, as promised.  He proposes a new way of thinking about the quipu, inspired by the digital age.  He asks us to imagine the ropes and lines as the 1’s and 0’s of binary language.  Then, add the fact that there are variations in the number of columns, length and distance between them, even their direction and the direction of the knots!

What he is saying is that the physical dimensions of the quipu indicate something far too complex to be just an accounting tool: a true multilayered system of narratives, records, and endless possibilities.  

 The only thing that is certain to me is that many have underestimated just how much information these devices could have contained.  Much more information, perhaps, than ink and papyrus.  Let’s begin to look at the quipu in a proper light: not the way Europeans saw it, but the way the Incas must have seen it.

Perhaps then we can begin to understand the nature of Andean civilization and revalue our human ancestors and how they lived.

Peru needs it. The whole world needs it.

Enjoy the long weekend and have a Feliz 28 de Julio!

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Mike grew up and eventually attended university in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He graduated in Integrative Leadership Studies with an emphasis in Urban and Regional Planning and has been a part of planning projects in three different countries. Mike’s passion is reading; he devours both literature and nonfiction. His favorite author is Peru’s own Julio Ramón Ribeyro.