Khipu: A Mathematical Relic Of The Inca Empire

1377 words - 6 pages

Khipu is a sophisticated mathematical technique employed by the Incans circa 1438-1533 BCE (“Ancient Civilizations”). Khipu can be a maddeningly intricate collection of threads to simpler models of just a few strands, all of which hold knots possessing imperative information for the Incan society via mathematical encoding (Urton, 1-10). Khipu can be analyzed by discussing their history, the meanings they hold, their composition, and the mathematical merits they contain.
The Inca Empire was situated mostly in current day Peru and was the largest empire in pre-Colombian America. The official language was Quechua (“Ancient Civilizations”). In Quechua, the term khipu means knot or to knot, a very fitting name for the series of knotted threads composing khipu. Khipu can also be referred to as Quipu, the Spanish spelling for the term (“Incan Quipu”). Khipu are clusters of threads often of different colors used to document a range of data (Quilter and Urton, 3). Khipu have many aspects which must all be factored together for the full meaning to be achieved. The cord color, connection of the cords, placement of the cords, spacing, types of knots, and placement of the knots are all vital components in understanding the information held by the khipu (“Incan Quipu”).
Khipu are not able to be directly translated, unfortunately. The data and their corresponding khipu are only known due to the Spanish conquistadors’ documentations of “readings” given to them by native Incan record keepers. However, that these translations are mediated through the Spaniards could mean potential skewing of the records. Another problem with these recordings is that the khipu they relate to are not known. Contemporary interpretations about the qualitative and quantitative knot formations are also potentially accurate portrayals of information they might contain. Therefore, all information khipu is deduced to hold are merely scholarly suppositions (Quilter and Urton, 3-5).
Khipu is a type of literacy for the Incans, instead of writing they had a system of cords and knots which they used to store facts. They were entrusted to the Khipukamayuq, the official record keepers of the khipu for different sects of the Incan population. Encoded in these knotted structures can be two types of data: statistics and historical recounting. They were used to keep accounts of reserves and expenses of the nation, population censuses, economics, demographics, astronomical observations, bureaucratic proceedings, and so on. As for descriptions given in khipu, they can contain histories, laws, and ceremonial practices. An example of the intricacies of the data khipu can contain can be seen in the account of an accosting of one old Incan by Spaniards while walking down a road holding a collection of khipus. When interrogated as to what information the khipus held, the Indian explain they were an account of every Spaniard who had traveled on a particular road, their economic...

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