A Database of Cords and Knots


By 1200 AD, the Incas were firmly established in Peru; by 1500, their empire extended from Ecuador to Chile. Francisco Pizarro visited Peru in the 1520s; hearing of its gold and other riches (its most valuable export today is copper), he returned in 1533 to conquer most of it.  Philosopher John Locke commented that it was "Spain's misfortune to have been the instrument of overthrow of two civilizations, the other was that of the Aztecs, each of which was the equal of her own."

Peru is about 2/3 the size of Mexico with a population of about 23 million, 47% Indians (Quechua) and 32% Mestizos (mixed Indian and Spanish).  Its official languages are Quechua and Spanish.  The predominant religion is Catholicism.  It is one the world's top fishing nations.

The Incan Empire, perhaps 5 million strong, flourished from about  1400 to 1560 AD.  The groups inhabiting Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina were forcibly organized into a single intricate, continuously monitored bureaucratic superstructure, with one religion and one language (Quechua) and supported by a system of material taxation.  An elaborate system of roads (14,300 miles through the Andes at altitudes of 8,000 to 16,000 feet!) was built and messages were transmitted throughout the empire by runners (each ran 1.5 miles with a quipu and a recited message).  This complex economy and superstructure lacked but one of the attributes usually required for classification as a "civilization": writing.

The Incans kept accurate accounts of the goods in their storehouses, as well as census and manpower figures.  Messages, taxes, inventories,   well as census and man-power figures.  Messages, taxes, inventories,   food consumption, censuses of people and stock, farmland,  tributes paid, etc., were all recorded on a quipu ("kee'-poo"), an assemblage of knotted color cotton cords, made up of one thick main cord and a hierarchy of top, pendant, subsidiary, and "dangle "cords. Let us consider that textiles were an extremely important part of the fabric of their society.  The placement and spreading of the  cords, the number and type of knots [three types: simple, figure  eight, and "long"], and the colors of the cords all conveyed information.  For example, the color indicated men, women, children, maize, silver, gold, etc., were being represented, depending on the quipu's context.  In the case of weapons, the succession in the collection of knotted cords represented spears, arrows, bows, javelins, clubs, axes, and slings in that order.  Incan society itself was ordered into 8 levels with the Supreme Inca at the top.  The authorities at each level had a specific number of people underneath them (always a multiple of 10).

Numbers are represented by clusters of knots spaced along the cords. The absence of a knot that represents 'zero'.  To avoid ambiguoities, a particular use of color patterning clarifies whether a cord without any knots should be interpreted as zero. Quipus were used to perform the four arithmetic functions as well as ratio and proportion in a manner identical to that on the abacus ("abacus" is derived from the Hebrew abaq, which has two meanings, "to cover with dust"  and "to make a loop or knot.

Most quipus were destroyed by invading Spaniards and the Catholic priests that followed them who believed quipus to be the work of the Devil.  500 remain today, all in museums and all found in Incan graves.  Most of the 500 are information-recording ones rather than arithmetic computational ones (which were untied and reused).

Knots came before writing in many peoples' histories: "Let people return to the spirit of the olden days when they used knotted cords for their records" - China, Lao-Tse, 6th century. "The people [of the Ivory Coast] do not know how to read or write.  Instead they have little knotted cords, the knots of which have meaning." -Labat, Voyage du Chevalier des marchais en Guinee, II, 1730. "These [ten] commandments that I give you today...Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads." - Moses in Deuteronomy, a book of the Bible. Descendants of the quipu in which the knots are different, chimpus, are still used today by Bolivian and Peruvian herdsmen as well by peoples in parts of China. In what is now Zimbabwe and Tanzania, knots were tied to record the passage of days, months, and years, to indicate when a debt was repaid, etc.  The Chagga women of Tanzania untie a knot on a string for every day that a journeying husband is away.

The textile patterns of the Kuba kingdom of the present-day Congo  (previously Zaire) are among the most complex in the world; the patterns of knots are metaphors for life, the universe, and everything; the L, V, Y, and X patterns knot the very old with the very new and symbolize their place in nature.  "Imbol" refers to (i) the pattern created when a line crosses itself twice and returns, (ii) gender, and (iii) personality type. In essence Kuba culture is a complex system of knotting.


 The Quipucamayu,   'the keeper of the Quipus'

The Quipu were the method by which the Inca consolidated their hold over the kingdom of the four directions. This message device could be carried by runners to all corners of their world. The statistics it relayed enabled the ruling class to know the exact economic conditions of all regions of their empire and act accordingly to prevent such catastrophes as drought and famine.

This marvellous method of communication which they used was nothing more than a series of knotted multicoloured strings. Although this instrument was not a mode of writing or a system of calculating numbers, it served as the mnemonic device by which the Incas sent messages, recorded their laws, and decided the fate of conquered territories.

Let us see an example of the work of the Quipucamayu, the keeper of the Quipus. He would use a black cord, the colour that indicated time, as the central string to hang the others from. Then he would suspend from it many uncoloured strings or coloured strings with many little knots tied in them. A crimson thread refers to the emperor because the crimson is the colour of the Inca. The reader of the Quipu, seeing this system would read it as saying before the first emperor (crimson thread) for a very long time (many threads and knots), the people had no ruler (no scarlet threads). Chiefs are also indicated by deep purple and religious people  by blue threads.  To describe the nature and amount of the treasure gained by the emperor a string of yellow for gold and white for silver would be suspended from the thread of the province it was taken from. (Louis Baudin "La vie quotidienne au temps de derniers inkas" ).

Let me invite the reader to visit the Exhibition  DALLA TERRA DEGLI INCAS, held in Torino,  Palazzo Barolo, 2000

The curator was Giuseppe Orefici, who studies the secrets of lost civilizations





Yarns and textiles

Gold and silver:


 Copyright © 2008 Amelia Carolina Sparavigna