In the movie Ghosts of Machu Picchu , it was mentioned that the Inca used something called quipu to keep records. According to the movie, it was a way of keeping record using strings and knots because they did not have a written language. I was curious how something as simple as string and knots cold so accurately keep track of history.
Quipu were used by South Americans and could be read by several different societies, most prominently the Inca. They were used for a large variety of purposes such as collecting data, keeping records, monitoring tax obligations, collecting census records, calendrical information, an even military organization. It is being debated whether quipu were used solely for numerical purposes or if they could contain a full language, along with whether or not it took a specialist to read them or if it was common knowledge. They would normally consist of a thick cord with thinner, colored, spun, and plied thread or strings made from cotton or camelid fiber attached. A quipu could contain anywhere from just a few strings or upwards to 2,000.
They became known to Europeans in the 16th century when Spaniards landed in South America. According to historians, the quipu were carried throughout the city by riders called “chasquis” to keep Incan rulers up to date with the activities in their empire. Sadly, during the 16th century thousands of quipu were destroyed by the Spaniards. They found the quipu suspicious and burned them during the Spanish Inquisition. There are only about 300 still remaining.
The meaning behind the quipu has yet to be translated, but scholars can tell that they contain a variety of information. The strings are dyed many different colors, made of varying materials and interconnected by an array of different knots, each potentially giving a different meaning to the system. It is known that they were used to record the production levels of farmers and artisans, and it is speculated that some could represent maps of the pilgrimage road network or have been used as mnemonic devices to help oral historians remember legends or the genealogy of important Incans. It is known the they used a base -ten numerical system, marked off by patterns in the knots. According to Leland Locke, the size, type, location of the knots, the color of the thread and structure of the cord and placement of the cord in relation to others all hold significant meaning. Although there is a lot of history in quipu it is very unlikely that they will ever be translated.