When the Spanish Conquistadors encountered the mighty Inca empire, they found thousands of knotted-up ropes called quipus. Encoded in these quipus were tax records, census data, and the entire history of the Inca empire. But the secret to these ancient computers have been lost to time. Today, scientists are trying to crack the unbreakable code in these strings and bring the history of this great empire back to life.
This is a quipu. It doesn’t look like much, at first glance you might think it’s a mop, but it’s actually much, much more than that.
It’s a document. And a computer. And somehow… a language?
Let me back up.
When Spanish conquistadors made their way across South America, they found the powerful Inca civilization, and as they were looting their treasures, they kept finding… these things.
In government buildings, in the homes of powerful nobles and warlords, these mop heads were everywhere, and they were clearly important. But why?
What they discovered, was that hidden in the twists and knots of these quipus were encoded information. Every knot had a different meaning, where the knots were located on the strings had a different meaning, the twists of the string, the color, the texture, all of it meant something. They were ledgers that recorded transactions, kept census data, some even contained entire family histories.
They were the “everything app” that maintained one of the most powerful civilizations in human history. What other cultures did with clay tablets or scrolls, the Incas did with string.
And this worked for hundreds of years. And then, all that information was lost. It’s still there, obviously, encoded in the strings, but nobody knows how to read them. It’s one of the most bizarre languages in human history, and it’s become almost entirely lost to time.
But we may be close to cracking the code.
Researchers from Harvard and MIT have been scouring through hundreds of these artifacts and are slowly untangling the information stored in these knots and strings. What they find inside could give us a whole new perspective of not just a great civilization, but of language itself.
According to the Language Conservancy, the world has lost more than half of all human languages since 1795. 61% to be exact.
In fact, at the moment, we’re losing nine languages a year. And they think it will go up to 16 a year by 2080. That’s a language every two weeks.
- Sierra Totonac
If those sound like a bunch of indigenous languages that you’ve never heard of, that’s because they are. And according to UNESCO, out of the 7,000 languages currently spoken, 6,700 are currently threatened. And most of those are indigenous.
But why does this matter? I mean, isn’t it better to have fewer languages, I mean, fewer languages means fewer language barriers, right?
Because when a language dies, we lose ideas from that culture. We lose a bit of history.
Like we hear the terms “prehistory” and “recorded history,” well a lot of our recorded history is in languages that are no longer spoken. When we lose a language, a little more “recorded history” becomes “prehistory.” We lose a connection with where we came from. And that does matter.
Plus the tools that historians use to get past the myths of history, the hard data like accounting books and inventories, they’re gone.
Like, it’s hard to overstate what a big deal the Rosetta Stone was.
Almost the entirety of the Egyptian Civilization, a civilization that lasted in various forms for three thousand years, had been completely forgotten to time. All those hieroglyphs covering all those walls, basically spelling out the entirety of their civilization, and literally nobody could read them.
Which is kind-of amazing when you think about it… (pause, thinking…) I’ll have to deal with that later.
And then in 1799, one of Napoleon’s troops dug up this slab of marble while they were building a fortification. And it had a lot of writing on it.
It was written by the priests of a temple in Memphis, declaring their support for the new king, Ptolemy V.
It was a decree, just Ancient Egyptian government paperwork, or marblework in this case. Nothing that interesting about it. Except it was written three times.
Once in Ancient Greek, once in Demotic, which is a cursive Egyptian script that was still in use. And once in hieroglyphics.
And because they could read the Ancient Greek and the Demotic texts, they knew that the inscription was the same, and from that they could match up the words with the hieroglyphics, and then it was like they had the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, y’all.
That’s a gross oversimplification, it was way more complicated than that, there was a whole competition to decipher it, between an English guy named Thomas Young and a French guy named Jean-François Champollion – Champollion won, it was a whole thing.
But this opened up literally all of Egyptian history for the first time, an entire new field of study was created out of it.
By the way, if you’re curious what’s actually on the Rosetta Stone, in the three languages, I can read it for you real quick, it says,
- On the twenty-fourth day of the month GORPIAIOS 2, which correspondeth to the twenty-fourth day of the fourth month of the season PERT 3 of the inhabitants of TA-MERT (EGYPT), in the twenty-third year of the reign of HORUS-RA the CHILD, who hath risen as King upon the throne of his father, the lord of the shrines of NEKHEBET 4 and UATCHET, 5 the mighty one of two-fold strength, the stablisher of the Two Lands, the beautifier of
- Egypt, whose heart is perfect (or benevolent) towards the gods, the HORUS of Gold, who maketh perfect the life of the hamentet beings, the lord of the thirty-year festivals like PTAḤ, the sovereign prince like RĀ, the King of the South and North, and uh… Hmm…
Anyway… the point is…
The Rosetta Stone was not a banger but it opened up the secrets to an entire ancient civilization. Unfortunately for the Incas, there hasn’t been a Rosetta Stone for their string language. Maybe for them it would be a Rosetta String.
But here’s what we do know…
It all started with the Quechua people, who showed up in the Andes Mountains of South America around the year 1400.
They started out as a tiny highland tribe, but in 100 years, they grew to conquer and control the largest empire in the Americas, eventually reaching more than 10 million people.
Its capital was in Cusco, Peru, and its control extended from what is today Ecuador to Chile and Bolivia.
It was a farming civilization with a vertical society governed by the Inca and his relatives.
Oh yeah, the Incas didn’t actually call themselves “The Incas.” “Inka” was the name of their leader, which was a god-king like the Egyptian Pharaohs. Actually “Inka” extended to the Inka’s entire family but yeah, the Inka was the leader.
It was the Spanish who decided to just call the entire culture, “The Inca.” Which would be like calling every Egyptian a Pharaoh. Or every Roman an emperor. Or every American Taylor Swift.
The actual name of the Inca empire was the Tawantinsuyu, or “Land of the Four Corners.” Because it was created when four tribes came together.
But regardless of what they were called, they were a powerful empire that featured an advanced system of roads, a centralized economy, impressive architecture, and a distinctive style of art.
And they did all of this without a written language.
The Quechua people helped form the Inca civilization in South America. In 1400 A.D., they were just a tiny highland tribe. But 100 years later, they had risen to conquer and control the largest empire in the Americas, reaching more than 10 million people. Its capital was in Cusco, Peru, and its control extended from what is today Ecuador to Chile to Bolivia. It was a farming civilization with a vertical society governed by the Inca and his relatives. Oh yeah, the Incas actually named their empire Tawantinsuyo, or “Land of the Four Corners.” An “Inca” was a member of the nobility or the higher strands of society. The empire featured an advanced system of roads, a centralized economy, and a distinctive style of art. But what it didn’t feature was a written language.
You could compact it down really small, it’s lightweight, made of inexpensive material, compare that to marble slabs like the Rosetta Stone or delicate papyrus scrolls.
They started out mostly as a counting tool to store numerical data. Things like census info, military numbers, calendar dates, and tax details.
But it’s believed over time they evolved to serve artistic and literary purposes.
And they started out a long time ago. Archaeological evidence suggests they go back to at least 770 A.D. Maybe even older than that.
In fact in 2005, researchers found a collection of devices that were basically strings twisted around small sticks that dated back to the Caral-Supe civilization, around 4000-4500 years ago.
These might have been like a proto-quipu.
What this suggests, is that it wasn’t the powerful Inca empire that created quipus. It was quipus that created the powerful Inca empire.
Information is the lifeblood of any advanced civilization. The ability to keep, copy, and distribute records and ideas and marching orders kinda makes everything else possible.
Of course this information only works if there are people who can decipher that information, and for the Incas, that was a group called the quipucamayocs.
These were kinda like the monks in medieval Europe that kept religious texts and written histories when most people couldn’t read.
But once the Spanish Conquistadors came through and changed everything, the quipus stopped being used. And the quipucamayocs eventually died out. And after that, all that information became lost, for hundreds of years.
But then a Harvard student named Manny Medrano came along, who nerded harder than any nerd had ever nerded in the history of nerddom.
It’s clear that that’s a compliment, right?
Back in 2016, Manny was taking a class from a professor named Gary Urton, who happens to be one of the world’s top experts on quipus.
He’s traveled the world finding and examining quipus in detail and created the Khipu Database Project in 2002.
He’s kind-of the Indiana Jones of quipus and eventually collected more than 900 in their database.
And he knew what the quipus represented in a general sense, like with the census data info and the registers of goods. But nobody could understand them on a detailed level. Like, if they included messages or cultural information beyond numbers, they were never quite sure.
But a breakthrough came for Urton while studying a set of six quipus from the 17th-century Santa River Valley region in northwest Peru.
At the same time he was studying those, he happened to come across a Spanish census document from the same time and place.
He noticed that many of the numbers in the census record matched the six quipus exactly.
Basically he was able to match the quipus to a Spanish colonial document. Not quite as good as the Rosetta Stone, but close.
So Urton mentioned this finding to his undergrad students in Spring 2016, one of whom was Manny Medrano.
Medrano, by the way, wasn’t an archeology student, he was an economics major, he just took this Inca Civilization class as an elective. He just wanted to study a time in history he didn’t know anything about.
And something about the puzzle of the quipus fascinated him, so when Urton brought up his breakthrough in class, Medrano offered to help.
Our guy even offered to spend his Spring Break comparing the documents to the quipus to try to crack the code.
As he told Atlas Obscura in 2017:
“I have a love of puzzles, just for entertainment. I love to do a Sudoku on a plane or something, but this is so much more profound.”
Oh my god, can I adopt this guy? How old is too old to adopt someone? Thirty? I could adopt a 30 year old.
So yeah, Urton gave him access to the database, probably thinking nothing would come of it. “Knock yourself out kid, I’ve been trying to do this for years”
But guys… He did it. He actually cracked the code. This is some Good Will Hunting shit here.
He basically graphed the data and looked for patterns. And he noticed that how each cord was tied onto the quipu appeared to correspond to the social status of the 132 people recorded in the census record.
And the string colors seemed to appear related to the people’s first names.
He figured all this out over Spring Break. Told Urton about it when they came back on Monday. Just casual. Solved a thousand year mystery. (beat) What?
The two continued working together over the next few months and then published a paper in Ethnohistory in January 2018.
Urton believes the six quipus used in the research could help decode hundreds of other quipus.
Like, the cords’ colors relating to the first names may hint at the meanings of the colors in other quipus.
As Medrano told The Harvard Gazette in 2017:
“We now know not only that there were six clans in the valley, but also what social status each clan and each villager held in Recuay society. I loved the idea that there might be numbers or words encoded in these knotted cords.”
Research is ongoing to pull these new details out of quipus, but the basics of how the accounting worked is pretty simple.
First off a lay of the land. Quipus are made up of a main cord across the top, and tied to the main cord are what they’ve named H cords. And sometimes attached to those H cords are another cord, called a B cord. And along the H and B cords, there’s a series of knots. Those knots add up to a number.
It works like this.
There’s three types of knots:
- Single knot
- Long knot
- Figure-eight knot
Each of these knots mean different things, and where they’re located along the string means different things… You know, it’s probably easier if I just show you.
The string is basically a decimal system, with sections of the string divided up by ones (bottom), tens (2nd up), hundreds (3rd), thousands (4th) and so on.
Single knots are used in the tens place and above to indicate a number of that unit, so say four knots in the hundreds place means four hundred.
The long knot and figure 8 knot are only used in the bottom category to denote single digits. The figure 8 knot means one. And the long knot can mean 2 through 9 depending on how many loops are in the knot. So a long knot that looks like this (2 loops) means 2. A long knot that looks like this, (9 loops) means 9.
o if you take our string and turn it sideways, these four sections of knots line up with the 4 digits of the number we’re looking for. And we just go left to right, one knot in the thousands place means one thousand. Seven knots in the hundreds place means seven hundred. Two in the tens spot means twenty. And this long knot has 4 loops on it, so that’s 4.
And thats our number. One thousand, seven hundred and twenty five. Maybe this guy has 1725 sheep in his stable.
Let’s move on to the next one. This one doesn’t have anything in the thousands place, so we start here with three hundred , now this one has a long knot, which usually these were reserved for that ones place, but sometimes they did use them up here in the same way, so this long knot has 8 loops on it, that would stand for 80 in this place. They probably did that just to avoid having to tie 8 whole knots. But in this last place you have the figure 8 knot. That means one. That only ever means one. So our number is 381.
Maybe that’s this other guy’s brother, and he has 381 heads of sheep. So maybe he’s not doing as well.
And this third line might be an uncle or a cousin, and he’s got one thousand, five hundred – there’s nothing in the tens place so that’s just a zero, and a long knot with four loops, that’s four. So 1,504.
So these three strings tally up the livestock for this family, so they’d be grouped together on the quipu and sometimes they’d include a line at the end of the group called a totalizer line, that’s basically the sum total of that group, so in our case the totalizer line would equal let’s see, 1725 plus 381 plus 1504 is… 3610. So it would look like this.
Add the next family in another group on the string, and the next family after that, and so on and next thing you know you’ve got a living ledger of all the families and tribes in your kingdom.
But that’s just the basic framework, on top of that they added layers and layers of meaning to all kinds of things, different colors might mean different things, like maybe a blue string counts chickens and red strings count sheep.
Some strings had stripes and patterns that meant different things. The texture of the string and the width of the string might have had different meanings, the way they were tied to the main cord might have carried information.
Some knots were tied in opposite directions, maybe that noted a debt they owed someone.
But they were able to use these multiple layers of meaning to get across complex details that told a story.
A Jesuit missionary even said that an Inca woman brought him a quipu that told her whole life story.
Unfortunately, we don’t know how to read the knots to that level anymore. And it’s a bummer because this is one of the great ancient lost civilizations and there are piles of these things that could tell us their entire story… We just don’t know how to do it. It’s like the hieroglyphics all over again. With no Rosetta Stone.
But maybe we’re getting closer?
In 2015, two quipus were found in the remote village of San Juan de Collata in the Peruvian Andes.
They were found by anthropologist Sabine Hyland, who believes that these quipus are special. Because they’re logosyllabic.
Meaning the knots and the differences in fibers corresponded to phonetic sounds, which formed words.
They were basically letters exchanged between local leaders during a revolt against Spanish authorities in the early 1800s. Kinda like a spy code?
These quipus embedded fibers from different animals into various knots and those fibers and their textures had a different meaning.
So to read this quipu, you kinda had to use your hands, almost like braille.
As Hyland wrote in SAPIENS in 2017:
This is an exciting indication of just how much more there is to find in these quipus, which unfortunately, are only a fraction of the quipus that once existed.
Along with everything else they did to the Incas, the Spanish destroyed thousands of quipus, mostly because they didn’t understand them.
So the quipus that do exist are fairly precious. And that makes deciphering them even more important. Progress is being made but unfortunately the language of the quipus is mostly forgotten.
And if you think you could be the one that cracks the code, maybe take Dr. Urton’s class at Harvard, you’d learn everything there is to—
Languages changing or dying out is a natural process when different societies mix. Sometimes a more dominant language wins out because successive generations find it more socially advantageous to use it, and eventually don’t teach their born language to their kids.
So, it happens, but as we’ve seen with the Inca Quipus, losing a language carries great costs.
We lose memories of our planet’s history and culture. We lose the best resources for locally fighting environmental threats. We lose what it means to be a human.