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Quipu Paper - The"Written Language of the Incas Will Roper...

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1 The “Written” Language of the Incas Will Roper Cultural Approaches to Math 103 After first hearing of the Inca quipus, I was immediately intrigued. At first sight, I was captivated by the strange simplicity of the series of ropes which allowed vast quantities of information to be transported over the massive 5500 kilometer Inca Empire. Although, I did feel as if the ropes told a more complicated story than numbers and categories. New breakthroughs in quipu theory may one day confirm the belief that the Incas did have a form of “writing.” If this is one day proven, then a new world of information and history about the relatively little known Incas will open up to us. The Inca Empire was centered in what is now Peru from about 1438 AD to about 1533 AD. At its height at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the empire was a rich, mighty domain that stretched some two thousand miles from what is now southern Colombia to central Chile (D’Altroy p. 18). Commenting of the incredible size of the Inca state, archaeologist Michael E. Moseley writes, “On the eve of Columbus’ landfall the Inca Empire probably surpassed China and the Ottoman Empire as the largest nation on the earth. It was the was the biggest native state to arise in the western hemisphere and also the largest empire of antiquity ever to develop south of the equator.” The Inca left more than enough proof to guarantee their status as a civilization: monumental architecture, technology, urbanization, and political and social structures to mobilize people and resources (Wilford). The other great empires of the world including Egypt, the Mayans, and China all had these attributes as well, but the Inca were lacking something: a
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writing system. As a matter of fact, out of all the major civilizations of the time the Inca were the only ones to lack a written language. This is a very peculiar exception for anthropologists who universally include writing as a defining characteristic of a civilization. This is where the true meaning of the quipu comes into question. For years, many anthropologists saw the quipu as being nothing more than a way to represent numbers for bookkeeping and census purposes. The quipu usually consists of colored spun and plied thread from animal hair, cotton, or wool with numeric values encoded by knots in a base ten positional system. The quipus may have just a few strands, but some have up to 2,000. The quipucamayocs were highly educated accountants who constructed and knotted the quipus. They were capable of simple mathematics such as addition, subtraction, multiplying, and dividing (D’Altroy p. 112). The quipucamayocs also tracked the type of labor being performed, maintained a record of economic output, and ran a census. In the early years of the Spanish conquest of Peru, Spanish officials frequently relied on the quipu to help solve disputes payments or goods production (A High Altitude Civilization). Spanish bookkeepers concluded that the quipus were used as mnemonic devices to communicate and record information in a numerical format.
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