Quipu: The Talking Knots

Quipu The Talking Knots - 1st Millenium AD -
Quipu The Talking Knots – 1st Millenium AD

“Khipu” is the Quechuan and Aymara spelling variation of the word “quipu”, which means “knot” or “to knot”. Quipu is the traditional Spanish spelling of the word and the most commonly used.

“Talking Knots” refers to an original method of “writing down” knowledge using knots fastened to ropes.  The first archaeological records of quipus date back to the 1st millennium AD, though it is believed that the system was used by pre-Columbian cultures at least 4,600 years ago.

They were made from coloured yarns out of cotton or camelid fibre strings, and they are knotted together to show information. These colourful pieces of art appear to have been used as multi-functional tools with many overlapping uses.

Quipu The Talking Knots - 1st Millenium AD
Quipu (Khipu) The Talking Knots – 1st Millenium AD

The colours of the ropes, the ways they are connected, the gaps between them, the kinds of knots on each rope, and the relative positions of those knots are all part of a logical-numeric code. What the strand represented is not fully understood. The first set of ropes could have represented men, and subsequent strands could have been representing women and children. Or perhaps each colour represented something specific like gold or maize for yellow.

According to anthropological studies from Harvard University, the quipus contain a seven-bit binary code capable of conveying more than 1,500 separate units of information. Quipus were knotted ropes using a positional decimal system. A knot in a row farthest from the main strand represented one, next farthest ten, etc. The absence of knots on a cord implied zero. Even though only the digits were ever decoded, most historians believe that the knotting system comprises both language and numerals. The relevance of the knots may also depend on their colour, placement, and separation.

The Talking Knots (Khipu)
The Talking Knots (Khipu)

The knots are said to be “talking” because they convey information individually and collectively, frequently more than the collection of parts. However, there is much more to the notion of “talking” than that. The artist would have been required to give life to those deep knots and interweave the narrative into the quipu. “There’s a reason we use the word ‘weave’ in this way: ‘text’ and ‘textile’ come from the same etymological source, which hints at the shared ideas of pattern, structure and construction behind a narrative and a piece of cloth.”

Quipucamayocs: The Knot-Weaving Masters

In the old Incan Empire, it was the Quipucamayocs who created and deciphered the quipu knots.

Talking Knots in the Inca Empire
Talking Knots in the Inca Empire

The Quipucamayocs were the Inca State administrative officials who specialized in the use of the quipu. The sons and grandsons of nobles or personages were trained in this occupation by the Amautas, or sages, from a very early age. They were members of the ruling class. Usually, males over sixty years old who had attended the Yacha-huasi, the Inca equivalent of a university.

The Quipucamayocs assisted the administrators of the collcas, or state warehouses, in keeping track of the stored products inventory. They also helped the surveyors distribute land, the tax collectors manage their taxpayer information, and the astrologers predict the proper time to plant and harvest crops. They recorded births, marriages and the plots of land granted to newly constituted families.

Quipucamayocs The Knot-Weaving Masters
Quipucamayocs: The Knot-Weaving Masters

However, these Knot-Weaving Masters were not the only people in the Inca culture to utilise quipus. Every city, village and town of the Incan Empire, no matter how small, had Quipucamayocs as record-keepers of the Empire.

Inca historians used the quipu when telling the Spanish invaders about Tahuantinsuyu history (whether they only recorded important numbers or contained the story itself is unknown).

Quipucamayocs The Knot-Weaving Masters (2)
Quipucamayocs: The Knot-Weaving Masters

The Quipu knots transmitted numerical information, frequently using a base-ten positioning system. There could be a small number of ropes on a quipu or thousands. The quipus’ arrangement has been “likened to string wipes.”

There are currently fewer than 800 quipu or assemblages of these knotted strings. They have been frequently discovered underneath cemeteries, and historians have suggested that they could reveal information about the deceased with whom they were buried.

How Were The Talking Knots Used?

The Quipucamayocs were mathematicians who were capable of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing information for the indigenous people. In short, they were the accountants of the Inca Empire.

Symbolic Representation of Quipu (Khipu) Counting System
Symbolic Representation of Quipu (Khipu) Counting System

They registered on their quipus the amount of wool the llama herders obtained annually from the state flocks, the quantity of corn the peasants harvested during the year, the coca leaves they gathered in the warm, humid valleys, and the potatoes, beans, cotton and quinoa they harvested on their land.

The Quipucamayocs also utilised Quipu for intelligence gathering, records management, historical research, tax compliance, census data, astronomical calendar data, and military organisation; such as tracking distances between towns or keeping track of the number of manufactured vessels, axes, mined copper, etc. They kept track of a taxation form known as Mita. They counted every person from infants to blind men over 80 years of age.

Method of Tying Quipu (Khipu) Knots
Method of Tying Quipu (Khipu) Knots

 Nothing was overlooked by these skilled state record-keepers.

In the absence of written records, the quipus served as a means of recording history and passed it on to the next generation, which used them as reminders of stories. And thus these primitive computers – quipus – had knotted in their memory banks the information which tied together the Inca Empire.

It is entirely possible for a khipu to exist without requiring a quipucamayoc, the equivalent to a maths book with no instructor. An artist would be required to breathe life into these deeper knots, to weave a narrative within the quipu, that stands for exchange.

Historical Background

Archaeological and historical evidence of talking knots first appear during the first millennium AD. They were widely used by the Kingdom of Cusco, and later by the Tawantinsuyu, the Inca ethnic group that thrived in the Andean region between 1100 and 1532. Quipus were crucial to the management of the Inca Empire.

The Spanish Empire colonised the Andean highlands in 1532, and some of the invaders included quipus in their historical texts of the expedition. The oldest instance was reported by Hernando Pizarro, the brother of the top Spanish officer Francisco Pizarro. He journeyed with his men in 1533 all along the imperial way from the highlands to the outer banks. They came with numerous quipu custodians along the way, who soon realised “unhooked some of the knots they had in the reserves portion, and they knotted them in some other portion.”

Following the Spanish conquest, “Indian authorities establish which region had suffered more than the other and levelling the damages amongst them,” the volume of data documented on the quipus is expressed in the decimal system. Early on in the conquering of Peru by the Spanish, conflicts over regional contribution payment or the manufacturing of goods were frequently resolved by the quipus, according to Spanish authorities. Quipucamayocs were able to be called before the tribunal, where their accountancy was accepted as legitimate proof of prior transactions.

The Spanish encouraged adjusting the quipu measurement technique to the demands of the colonial power. At the same time, clerics pushed using such quipus only for religious purposes, even though some quipu were undoubtedly classified as pagan and incinerated. Quipus have remained significant for the culture in many contemporary communities, but for ceremonial purposes instead of everyday use.

Some claim the quipus were deliberately eliminated when the region was subsumed by the Spanish Empire, in order to be replaced by European symbols and numbers.

According to the Andean indigenous chronicler Guamán Poma de Ayala, through the strings and knots of the quipu, “the Inca governed the entire Empire.”

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