There are a few topics that we address in my course on Hispanic Civilization that I use to measure if a student is completely hopeless or not. Quipus are one such topic.

 This legacy of the quechua people is one of the fascinating things I discuss in my series of lectures on Hispanic Civilization. I usually ask the students to guess what these are. They start offering suggestions, and the excitement in the classroom grows.

When I finally reveal that this is the quechua equivalent of a book, the students all gasp in amazement. If there is a student who still doesn’t wake up even for something as stunning as this, I know that s/he is a lost cause intellectually.

I very rarely encounter such indifferent students, though. Usually, 20 minutes into my lecture on the indigenous civilizations of the Americas, everybody is awake and listening breathlessly.

“Ah, you just wait a little,” I always think. “Next week when we will talk about the European conquest of the Americas I will have you all sobbing.”

14 thoughts on “Quipus”

    1. Nobody has been able to decipher them completely. When the conquistadors arrived, they thought this was just garbage and simply burned most of quipus. However, it is now widely believed that the shape and the size of each knot represented either a number or a word. Quipus were kept to keep records of financial transactions but were apparently also used to record poetry and stories. So reading for the quechua people was not about receiving information through their eyes as much as it was about touching. It’s a bit like the Braille.

      Cool, huh?


  1. “From Middle Horizon times (600-1000 CE) onward, Andean peoples have kept records on devices of knotted cords of cotton or (rarely) alpaca wool. These are called khipus in Quechua. A khipu consists, minimally of a main cord from which pendant cords hang. (Pendants of pendants are called subsidiaries.) Knots tied in the pendant cords and other modifications of the pendant are the commonest data-bearing or significant features. Inka functionaries used cord records for censuses, inventories, tribute records, and documents about transactions; Spanish courts also accepted them as documents of record in early colonial times. The majority of known specimens utilize an Inka system for numerical recording, deciphered by Leland Locke in the 1920′ s. Knots upon the lowest part of the pendant represent units, and successive knot clusters ascending toward the main cord register tens, hundreds, and thousands. The principle is a true decimal system, although it has no explicit symbol matching the zero of Arabic numbers. Some cords contain totals or other arithmetic derivatives of pendant cord numbers. Additional significant properties such as cord color and the “S” or “Z” directions of twist and knotting recorded additional variables.

    However, well-informed early colonial writers insisted that not all khipus were of this statistical kind. Some reportedly encoded histories or poems. How could cords encode language? The huge khipu corpus compiled by the Aschers and studied by Gary Urton among others shows examples “contrary” to the Inka arithmetic norm, but the relation between language and such nonstandard khipus remains controversial and constitutes a research frontier.”



  2. Quipus are really neat! I first heard about them in a storybook I read in elementary school, called “Runner for the King,” about a boy whose job it was to run messages (in quipu form) between different cities within the Inca empire.

    I loved the book, because I liked running a lot, too, so it was easy to imagine myself as the main character of this book. And having it set in this amazingly complex culture I had known nothing about was pretty cool, too.

    (And yes, your students are lucky to have you!)


  3. When the conquistadors arrived, they thought this was just garbage and simply burned most of quipus.

    I see you tagged you post “Hispanic civilization”, but after reading that, I’m beginning to think it’s an oxymoron.


    1. Quipus are now part of Hispanic Civilizatio, too. The Hispanic Civilization was created by the Romans, the Visigoths, the Jews, the Muslims, the Basques, the Galicians, the Catalans, the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Incas, and all of the other indigenous cultures of the Americas. It is a civilization that had many vicious jerks (and which didn’t?) But which also gave the world cultural treasures beyond all measure


  4. I am by now years late to commenting, but I do believe it would hurt no one to see that the archives of this blog are still getting eyes on them.

    I had to google the image because the original one is down… And then I stared at the results for a while, mouth agape, finally laughing so loud that it attracted the attention of passerby outside the window. It is a kind of laugh I have when I find out that, say, I’ve walked around the whole day with my shirt buttoned wrong – a surprising thing coming into view that you would already have known if only you paid closer attention.

    I was a kind of techo-liberal for the longest time, of the ilk that would quietly murmur “Sure, the liberal arts are kind of cute, but would it *really* hurt our common culture all that much if we threw them out and replaced them with variations on sociology and physics?”

    It might not do much, but from this day on I will joyously expect and defend the place of languages in an university curriculum.

    Thanks for showing this!


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