Discover Khipu, the Ancient Incan Record & Writing System Made Entirely of Knots

Khi­pus, the portable infor­ma­tion archives cre­at­ed by the Inca, may stir up mem­o­ries of 1970s macrame with their long strands of intri­cate­ly knot­ted, earth-toned fibers, but their func­tion more close­ly resem­bled that of a dense­ly plot­ted com­put­er­ized spread­sheet.

As Cecil­ia Par­do-Grau, lead cura­tor of the British Museum’s cur­rent exhi­bi­tion Peru: a jour­ney in time explains in the above Cura­tors Cor­ner episode, khi­pus were used to keep track of every­thing from inven­to­ries and cen­sus to his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives, using a sys­tem that assigned mean­ing to the type and posi­tion of knot, spaces between knots, cord length, fiber col­or, etc.

Much of the infor­ma­tion pre­served with­in khi­pus has yet to be deci­phered by mod­ern schol­ars, though the Open Khipu Repos­i­to­ry — com­pu­ta­tion­al anthro­pol­o­gist Jon Clin­daniel’s open-source data­base — makes it pos­si­ble to com­pare the pat­terns of hun­dreds of khi­pus resid­ing in muse­um and uni­ver­si­ty col­lec­tions.

Even in the Incan Empire, few were equipped to make sense of a khipu. This task fell to quipu­ca­may­ocs, high born admin­is­tra­tive offi­cials trained since child­hood in the cre­ation and inter­pre­ta­tion of these organ­ic spread­sheets.

Fleet mes­sen­gers known as chask­is trans­port­ed khipus on foot between admin­is­tra­tive cen­ters, cre­at­ing an infor­ma­tion super­high­way that pre­dates the Inter­net by some five cen­turies. Khi­pus’ stur­dy organ­ic cot­ton or native camelid fibers were well suit­ed to with­stand­ing both the rig­ors of time and the road.

A 500-year-old com­pos­ite khipu that found its way to British Muse­um organ­ics con­ser­va­tor Nicole Rode pri­or to the exhi­bi­tion was intact, but severe­ly tan­gled, with a brit­tle­ness that betrayed its age. Below, she describes falling under the khipu’s spell, dur­ing the painstak­ing process of restor­ing it to a con­di­tion where­by researchers could attempt to glean some of its secrets.

Vis­it Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino’s web­site to learn more about khipu in a series of fas­ci­nat­ing short arti­cles that accom­pa­nied their ground­break­ing 2003 exhib­it QUIPU: count­ing with knots in the Inka Empire.

via Aeon.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How the Inca Used Intri­cate­ly-Knot­ted Cords, Called Khipu, to Write Their His­to­ries, Send Mes­sages & Keep Records

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Machu Pic­chu, One of the New 7 Won­ders of the World

Ancient Maps that Changed the World: See World Maps from Ancient Greece, Baby­lon, Rome, and the Islam­ic World

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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