From Academic Kids
The term khipu is an orthographic rendering of the Quechua word for "knot". A khipu usually consists of colored cotton cords with numeric values perhaps encoded by knots in the base-10 positional system. During the development of the system, there was no attempt to remaster, or recreate phonetic sounds as the script in European writings do. The khipu have yet to be deciphered, and there are a variety of theories as to how much information they contain. Some have argued that far more than numeric information is present and that the khipu are a primitive written language. This is especially important as there is no surviving record of a written Quechua from before the Spanish invasion, something which is extremely rare for such an advanced civilization.
Many uses that are known today for the khipu are: census counts, taxes, a count of items that should be bought or sold and basic numerical data. Inca administrators seemed to be the primary users of the khipu, using it as a way to keep track of their resources like livestock and farming. These administrators would be in charge of certain districts that divided up the empire.
Quipucamayocs, the accountants of Tahuantinsuyu, created and deciphered the khipu knots. Quipucamayocs were capable of performing simple mathematical calculations such as adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing information for the indigenous people. This included keeping track of mita, a form of taxation. The Quipucamayocs also tracked the type of labor being performed, maintained a record of economic output, and ran a census that counted every one from infants to "old blind men over 80". The system was also used to keep track of the calendar.
Quipucamayocs were not the only members of Inca society to use the khipu. Inca historians used the quipu when telling the Spanish about Tahuantinsuyu history (whether they recorded important numbers or actually contained the story itself is unknown). Members of the ruling class were usually taught to read the khipu as part of their education. (See: Inca education)
In early years of the Conquests, Spanish officials often relied on the khipu to settle disputes over local tribute payments or goods production. Also, Spanish chroniclers concluded that quipus were used basically as mnemonic devices to communicate and record information in the numerical format. Quipucamayocs could be summoned to court, where their bookkeeping was considered legal documentation of past payments.
The Spanish quickly suppressed the use of the khipu. The Conquistadors realized the Quipucamayocs often remained loyal to their original rulers rather than the King of Spain, and Quipucamayocs could lie about the contents of a message. The Conquistadors were also attempting to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism. Anything representing the Inca religion was considered idolatry and an attempt to disregard Catholic conversion. Many Conquistadors considered khipu to be idolatrous and therefore destroyed many of them.
Today only 600 Incan khipu survive. More primitive uses of the khipu have also continued in the Peruvian highlands. Some historians believe only the Quipucamayocs that made the specific khipu could read it. If this is true it cannot be considered a form of writing, but rather a mnemonic device. Many historians, however, have attempted to convert the khipu into a decipherable language because the Tahuantinsuyu was such a powerful Empire prior to the conquest of Spain; discovering the Incan's side of the story could possibly reveal an entire new link to the past.
The Quipu had a sort of a mathematical track, such as symbols. The Inca imparted some numerical information and some basic narrative ideas. The quipu communicated through color, texture, size, forms, and other characteristics that denoted some interaction with the reader.
- Harvard University, The Khipu Database Project (http://khipukamayuq.fas.harvard.edu/WhatIsAKhipu.html) (gallery, archives, references, researchers, etc.)
- The Quipu, an Incan Data Structure (http://agutie.homestead.com/files/Quipu_B.htm) by Antonio Gutierrez, from "Geometry Step by Step from the Land of the Incas"
- Quipu: A Modern Mystery (http://www.sfu.ca/archaeology/museum/laarch/inca/quipue.html)
- University of Wisconsin, Deparment of Anthropology (http://www.anthropology.wisc.edu/chaysimire/titulo2/khipus/quipus.htm) How do quipus record information?