The mysteries of Inca cords

Quipus are essentially associated with Inca culture, and in particular with the management of their empire, the extent of which we know from the Qhapaq Ñan, the Inca Trail.

These are cords made up of knots, the arrangement of which makes it possible to create a “writing” whose use and sophistication remain an unsolved mystery.

We know that it was used for administrative and accounting purposes, to record the empire’s accounts (livestock, reserves, army, etc.). But the close link between these figures and their actual use is still a subject of research. Moreover, there is a strong probability that the quipus had not only an arithmetical but also a narrative meaning, as confirmed by the historical writings of the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. The half-breed son of an Inca princess and a Spanish conqueror, he left at the age of 21 for Spain, where he lived for the rest of his life, far removed from Inca culture.

The structure of quipus

The structure of known quipus (between descriptions in ancient texts and museum specimens) is generally as follows (there are, of course, exceptions to the rule):

Firstly, there are three types of rope: a main rope to which are attached the cords on which the first knots are tied. But these can be joined by other subsidiary cords with knots.

There are three types of knots:

  • figure-of-eight knots, equivalent to one unit;
  • long knots, whose value depends on the number of loops making up the knot, ranging from two to nine;
  • and single knots, whose position determines their value. Values are read from top to bottom, holding the main string by both ends and letting the dependent cords hang down. See images opposite.

How quipus are made?

However, some researchers consider that there are alternatives in the making of quipus, representing an intentional choice (there are seven plausible alternatives): the material used, for example, wool or cotton; or the orientation of the braids or knot loops, or the colors used.

The quipus were worn by a singular character, the quipukamayok, who elaborated them and thus travelled the empire to carry these “messages” to the local caciques or administrators of the empire.

There are still many mysteries surrounding these communication “tools”.

To discover more about the Inca culture and its mysteries during your trip to Ecuador, contact us.