The Inca, and the Mysterious Quipu

Progress on a Historical Mystery that I’m Paying Attention To – Decoding the Mysterious Quipus of the Inca. There are few civilizations born on our earth as interesting and particular as the Inca. Their emergence as a unified political entity in the plateaus of the Peruvian Andes around the 13th Century is steeped in myth and opaque stories which leave much to interpretation. After centuries spent solidifying their regional supremacy, the Inca sprung upon their neighbours. After a series of conquests and diplomatic coups, they found themselves transformed from city state into one of Earth’s largest Empires. In about sixty years, all of Western South America became the dominion of Cuzco, and the many millions who found themselves part of the empire were the subjects of Cuzco’s approximately 40,000 Inca inhabitants. 

Terraced hills at the end of a trek, with my travel companion in front. My picture from 2016

From here on I will refer to the peoples of the Andes generally as the Inca, though in truth, this was an empire, composed of a great many nations and cultures.

The Inca Empire is fun to learn about. Their isolation from the rest of the world, even from Mesoamerica, allowed them to develop into a formidable empire composed of tens of millions of citizens, all the while preserving so many unique, eccentric characteristics. Truly, until the Inca are considered, a great many characteristics we see in human cultures appear to be naturally emergent: these characteristics cannot help but appear once we reach a certain population size. The Inca spit in the face of this belief!

Ruins of Pisac, with the incredible curved terraced hillside bellow, which would have fed the mountain top community hundreds of years ago. My pictures, from 2016

For example, the Incan empire was composed of a minimum of 12 million individuals, and possibly many more, but it never used or invented a concept for money. The Inca Empire never developed the wheel into a useful tool. It made almost no use of draft animals in work and industry (with the exception of the llama). The Inca Empire, along with the Tibetan Empire, are the only empires I know to have existed in a mountainous terrain.  Moreover, the Inca had no knowledge of steel or iron.

In enumerating these points, the intention is not to denigrate the Inca, but rather, to build up their achievements. Anyone who’s seen pictures, or who has been fortunate enough to visit Machu Pichu understands the incredible sophistication, energy, inventiveness, and mastery that the Incans could bring to bear in all domains, from engineering, leadership, organization, science, and in sheer manpower. The Inca built Machu Pichu, intricate road systems, and built massive scientific laboratories for agricultural research. The Inca are all the more impressive and fascinating for what they were able to make do without. 

Moray Laboratory. It is hard to get a sense of scale, but try finding the small stone stairs which jut out from the terrace sides. They can be seen on the right more easily. Taken from Wikipedia.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Inca is their mastery of the mountain landscape, which is a rare and monumental achievement for large groups of humans. Humans are not suited for establishing thriving civilizations at altitude, and rarely do they come to dominate these landscapes. The Inca, and truth be told, all the peoples of the Andes, terraced mountain sides, constructed monumental road systems that traversed the Andes, and they even developed genetic adaptations to altitude, to increase their lung capacity as well as the efficiency of their oxygen absorption.  The achievement that is particularly Inca is the conquest of this indominable landscape.  We might say that the Inca were able to unite the will and industry of many millions of humans, to collectivize the Andes for the first time.  But war and conquest is hardly something to praise, and the millions who suffered the Inca as conquerors will forever live in silence, with no ability to give their version of the Inca Empire. 

A temple at Machu Pichu. This picture shows the insane mastery that the Inca brought to bear in stonework and masonry. Sacredness had something to do with nature, though I do not want to speak much on this since I am by no means an expert. Suffice it to say that the Inca liked to find their temples premade by nature, and to build up the area around the natural altars.

The ultimate losers in history are the illiterate, who shall forever be labelled by their literate neighbours.  We only know about the Andes of old through Inca sources, but the Inca themselves left no writings either.  That’s right, the Inca, with their thriving empire, filled with complexity and innovation, reserved itself the ultimate eccentricity; it was illiterate.  It had no system of writing!  I can’t imagine how they managed to organize and feed the colossal armies they could muster, or the presumably giant workforces that constructed some of these cities on mountaintops!  The Inca not developing a system of writing is almost insulting to any nation that needed writing to achieve similar feats.  What we know of the history of the Inca comes from oral histories, told by the Inca themselves to the Spanish.

Picture I took of a Quipu in Cuzco

I should not say that however, because while the Inca did not possess a system of writing that we would recognize, they did possess sophisticated technology by which they could record data. Quipus are collections of ropes, tied together at one end along a central rope. Knots are tied in the quipus’ strings at various intervals, and these would symbolize information that served the Inca administratively… Somehow. That’s about all we know. Since the last Inca who could read from a quipu took the secret with him to the grave, no one has been able to decipher the technology. We know more or less that they contain statistical information. Lists of items, storehouse quantities, census polls, and such things.

Quipu, taken from Wikipedia

While the quipu is sophisticated technology, it does not appear to encode writings. Numerical systems for recordkeeping and tallying always preceed writing systems.  Numerical systems have been around for over 40,000 years (knotches in bones for example), and we do not consider these to be systems of writing. However, there are many reputable individuals who suggest that this view is wrong, and that there might be more information encoded into quipus than simple numbers. Colours, decorations, special knots, have all been suggested to represent things from the world symbolically, or in other words, they are suggested to constitute a system of writing.

Inca Jewelry

A few years ago, an economics student from Harvard took a history elective where he heard a professor talk about the subject. The professor, named Gary Urton, had excitedly shared with his class the news that he might have found 6 quipus that matched up with information found in a Spanish census of 132 Indigenous villages. As many conquerors do, when the Spanish took over the Incan Empire, they continued to use the established administrative systems to exert control over the conquered population. As such, the quipucamayoc, or Quipu scribes, would still have a job in the early years of the Spanish acquisition of the Inca Empire, which might have provided history a single opportunity to decode the technology: Inca bureaucrats performed censuses on behalf of the Spanish, then this information was recorded in quipus, then was translated and transcribed for Spanish administrators into Spanish text, and we now have both, and know that they match up, and must merely find the patterns in the quipus that match those in the Spanish texts! The professor was so excited, because this might have been the Rosetta stone which would allow us to uncover the secrets contained in the more than 600 quipus remaining from the Incan Empire. 

Machu Pichu, 2016

This student, Manny Medrano, volunteered to help the professor scan over the information. What was meant to be a week of volunteering during summer break turned into a multi month project that I encourage you to read about through the following link. Together, Manny and Urton might have established a template by which other quipus could be tentatively decoded, though from what I can see, their work has not been conclusively vindicated. Another has since taken a public shot at decoding the quipus, a certain Sabine Hylan, who has made the first attempt at a phonetic translation of a quipu, basing herself on the Incan sounds for the animal fibers which made up the quipu. For the moment, the jury is still out on this fascinating piece of technology, but I certainly hope these individuals are correct. I want the Quipu to hold much more than lists. In truth, lists would be great. Imagine getting tallies from the Inca; a single census from pre-Spanish time, before the plagues killed the vast majority of the Andeans, could shatter all convention on the Inca Empire. But imagine getting more? Poetry, stories, ideas, from a people so very opaque to us today. Many other pictographic and unorthodox systems of writings have been written off before by experts as mere art, until some important individual puts the first two pieces of puzzle together. My fingers are crossed.

Machu Pichu, 2016

Thank you for reading! For more pictures of Inca masonry, click the following link!

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