Living Reference Work Entry

Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures

pp 1-7

Date: Latest Version


The quipu is most commonly known as the numeric recording system of the Inca Empire, which extended across Peru and parts of Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (see Fig. 1). This device is the result of a long tradition of Andean textile production and string patterns in pre-Inca civilizations, and its use extended well into the colonial period (and is still used to some extent in various present-day communities). Over the years, these knot records have been interpreted as mnemonic devices, numeric accounts, narrative histories, binary codes, and various classifications of writing systems.
Fig. 1

An Inca quipu from the southern coast of Peru (Courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum)

Colonial chroniclers described their awe and inability to perceive how the Incas manipulated the colored cords with such ease to denote both numerical and historical information related to the tribute of goods and money, labor obligations, censuses, la ...

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