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Counting: Calendars and Cords
Three Great Civilizations
The Maya: Ancient Timekeepers
Aztec Legends and Calendars
Accountants of the Inca
The Spanish Conquest
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Accountants of the Inca

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.

Quipu buttons
Quipu stringsQuipu strings
Quipu strings

How was the quipu read?
Close-up of the Quipu knotsThe 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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These topics correspond to chapters in the Patterns of Interaction series (McDougal Littell, 2005).