Alex Wright

The Quipu

November 30, 2006

On a recent trip to Chile, Gene Smith discovered the Quipu, an ancient Incan tool for information storage and retrieval. I also came across the Quipu recently while doing some research for a book I've been working on. Here's what I wrote:

In ancient Peru, Incan messengers used to travel across the Andes carrying a bundle of woven thread known as a Quipu, or "talking strings." When the messenger arrived at his destination, he would deliver his news while reeling off knots in the string like a rosary. For the Incas, a people with no written language, the Quipu served as their core information technology. It was a communications medium, a counting tool, even a method for recording laws. A skilled Quipucamayu ("keeper of the Quipus") could use the device to tell complex stories by weaving the colored threads together. Each thread represented a different facet of the narrative: a black string marked the passage of time, while other colored strings symbolized different characters or themes in a story: rulers, neighboring tribes, gods. By juxtaposing the multicolored strings of the story along the black-stringed axis of time, the Quipucamayu could "write" almost any kind of tale. Despite a total lack of writing as we would understand it, the Incas managed to keep track of enormous stores of information by manipulating these symbolic objects.

> The Quipucamayu

> More about Quipus

File under: Informatics

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