One of the strengths of the Incan Empire was its government's sophisticated method of recording goods,
services, and other numerical data. Expert Incan accountants, the quipu camayoc, used webs of knots called
quipus (pronounced kee-poo) to record and inventory this data, and to transport their accounting records
throughout the empire.
How was the quipu read?
The quipu recorded data of all types. It consisted of knotted strings of cotton or wool,
dyed a variety colors, that could be made up of hundreds of strands of different lengths. The name
quipu comes from the Quechua, or Incan, word for knot. While simple quipu might
be used by farmers and other common people, the quipu camayoc were specifically trained to keep
an accurate account of data essential to governing a vast empire. About 400 quipus survived the
Spanish conquest. From these artifacts, experts have determined that the main cords organized data that
was collected along the attached branching cords. The Inca used a base-10 system of counting. Unlike the
modern decimal system, however, in which numbers increase by a factor of 10 from right to left, on a
quipu, higher knots had a higher place value.
Credits: Aztec Calendar Stone © Kimball Morrison/South American Pictures;
Quipu © Tony Morrison/South American Pictures.
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