Incan Quipu: Definition & History

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

How much do you know about ancient methods of communication and record keeping? In this lesson, you will learn about Incan quipu and how it was used to communicate across the vast Incan Empire.

It's about Sending a Message

Imagine a time before text messages, Twitter, and email. Actually, imagine a little further back and to a time before Excel spreadsheets and accountants. Can you picture it? Between 500 and 4,600 years ago, this was the reality for the Inca people living in South America. Without modern means of communication, how did they transmit messages and keep track of important information? One word - QUIPU.

Incan Quipu

The Inca Empire was one of the most advanced civilizations encountered by the Spanish in the New World. Located high in the mountains of Peru, the emperor lived in the capital, Machu Picchu, which was connected to smaller towns and villages by a complex system of roads. The emperor sent and received messages from the capital to monitor activity throughout the empire. Unlike the Mayans or the Aztecs, however, the Inca did not have a system of writing. So how was communication across a vast and often dangerous territory possible?

To communicate and keep records, the Inca sent information with quipu (pronounced key-pooh). Quipu was a system of strings tied together by different knots to relay information. Right now you're probably picturing a large tangled ball of yarn and thinking how can you get information from a tangled ball of yarn? In reality, quipu was a complex and organized system that conveyed different ideas and facts in two ways: the type of yarn and the type of knot.

Messages transmitted by quipu varied based on the type of yarn (wool or cotton), the direction the yarn fibers were twisted, and the color of the yarn. Archeologists and historians speculate that the type of yarn told the recipient what the message was about; for example the yarn color might indicate that the message was about a type of crop being grown or harvested.

Quipu
Quipu

The way the strings were tied and organized was the second way quipu communicated information. Quipu has three main parts: the primary cord, pendants, and subsidiary pendants. The primary cord is a long string that ran across the quipu. The primary cord was kind of like a clothesline with things (pendants) hanging from the line. The pendants were the strings tied to the main cord. Subsidiary pendants were additional strings tied to the main pendants attached to the top of the quipu. These strings were then knotted together to represent numbers and values. Depending on the type, size, and location of the knot, the number could represent ones, tens, hundreds, or thousands.

Quipu Knots
Quipu Knots

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