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.
So were the quipus advanced memory aids or full-blown writing systems?
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.
Perhaps then we can begin to understand the nature of Andean civilization and revalue our human ancestors and how they lived.