The Incas: Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Inca Trail

The Quipus and The Royal Commentaries of the Inca by Garcilaso de la Vega

The Quipu Index. Inca Empire.

The Quipus and The Royal Commentaries of the Inca

In 1609, the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega published the first volume of his Royal Commentaries of the Incas in Lisbon. He wrote:

The word quipu means both knot or to knot; it was also used for accounts, because they were kept by means of the knots tied in a number of cords of different thicknesses and colors, each one of which had a special significance. Thus, gold was represented by a gold cord, silver by a white one, and fighting men by a red cord.

When their accounts had to do with things that have no color - such as grain and vegetables - they were classified by categories, and, in each category, by order of diminishing size. Thus, to furnish an example, if they had had to count the various types of agricultural production in Spain, they  would have started with wheat, then rye, then peas, then beans, and so forth. In the same way, in order to make an inventory of the arms of the imperial army, they first counted the arms that were considered to belong in a superior category, such as lances, then javelins, bows and arrows, hatchets and maces, and lastly, slings, an any other arms that were used. In order to ascertain the number of vassals in the Empire, they started with each village, then with each province: the firs cord showed a census of men over sixty, the second, those between fifty and sixty, the third, those from forty to fifty, and so on, by decades, down to the babes at the breast.

Occasionally other, thinner, cords of the same color, could be seen among one of these series, as though they represented an exception to the rule; thus, for instance, among the figures that concerned the men of such and such an age, all of whom were considered to be married, the thinner cords indicated the number of widowers of the same age, for the year in question: because, as I explained before, population figures, together with those of all the other resources of the Empire, were brought up to date every year.

According to their position, the knots signified units, tens, hundreds, thousands, ten thousands and, exceptionally, hundred thousands, and they were all as well aligned on their different cords as the figures that an accountant sets down, column by column, in his ledger. Indeed, those men, called quipucamayus, who were in charge of the quipus, were exactly that, imperial accountants.

The number of quipucamayus scattered throughout the Empire, was proportional to the size of each place. Thus the smallest villages numbered four, and others twenty, or even thirty. The Incas preferred this arrangement. even in places where one accountant would have sufficed, the idea being that, if several of them kept the same accounts, there was less risk that they would make mistakes.

Every year, an inventory of all the Inca's possessions was made. Nor was there a single birth or death, a single departure or return of a soldier, in all the Empire, that was not noted on the quipus. And indeed, it may be said that everything that could be counted, was counted in this way, even to battles, diplomatic missions, and royal speeches. But since it was only possible to record numbers in this manner, and not words, the quipucamayus assigned to record ambassadorial missions and speeches, learned them by heart, at the same time that they noted down the numbers, places and dates on their quipus; and thus, from father to son, they transmitted this information to their successors. The speeches exchanged between the Incas and their vassals on important occasions, such as the surrender of a new province, were also transmitted to posterity by the amautas, or philosophers, who summarized them in simple, clear fables, in order that they might be implanted by word of mouth in the memories of all the people from those at court to the inhabitants of the most remote hamlets. The harauicus, or poets, also composed poems based on diplomatic records and royal speeches. These poems were recited for a great victory or festival, and every time a new Inca was knighted.

When the curacas and dignitaries of a province want to know some historical detail concerning their predecessors, they asked these quipucamayus, who were, in other words, not only the accountants, but also the historians of each nation. The result was that the quipucamayus never let their quipus out of their hands, and they kept passing their cords and knots through their fingers so as not to forget the tradition behind all these accounts. In fact, their responsibility was so great and so absorbing, that they were exempted from all tribute as well as from all other kinds of service.

All laws, ordinances, rites, and ceremonies throughout the Empire were recorded by these same means.

When my father's Indians came to town on Midsummer's Day to pay their tribute, they brought me the quipus; and the curacas asked my mother to take note of their stories, for they mistrusted the Spaniards, and feared that they would not understand them. I was able to reassure them by re-reading what I had noted down under their dictation, and they used to follow my reading, holding on to their quipus, to be certain of my exactness; this was how I succeeded in learning many things quite as perfectly as did the Indians.


 ROyal Commentaries about the Quipu