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How Did the Incas Keep Records Without a Writing System?

The Inca civilization thrived in Peru between 1400 and 1533 CE. At the time, it was the biggest empire in the Americas and one of the largest in the world. Communication is an important part of all successful cultures and the Incas were no different. However, the Incas didn’t have an alphabetic writing system. Instead, they kept records using a device of strings with knots called a quipu.

Quipus, sometimes referred to as “talking knots,” were made up of colored thread and were used for keeping records (such as census data) and sending messages throughout the Inca empire. They were a debit/credit system, similar to modern accounting.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The type of thread used, its color, length, spacing, and knot placement were all key in reading a quipu. The strings of the quipu housed numeric and other values encoded as knots, commonly in a base ten positional system, meaning the places or positions of the numbers were based on powers of 10. Quipus could record up to 10,000 decimals.

Researchers have wondered whether quipus contain more than just numeric information. Some experts have argued that quipus were a writing system, though this has never been confirmed.

Curious about quipus?

  • Approximately 600 quipus still exist in private collections and museums around the world.

  • The knots utilized in quipus included simple, overhand knots, long knots (an overhand knot with additional turns), and figure-eight knots.

  • The Peruvian village of Tupicocha was still utilizing quipus for official government record-keeping as recently as 1994. Anthropologists and archaeologists have discovered two other cases where quipus are being used by contemporary communities, though as ritual items.

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      Woman holding a book