Khipu: Ancient Peruvian Computers

A Spanish contemporary drawing of an Incan with a khipu.

“El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno” by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (1615)

What is a “khipu”? A khipu (also know as a “quipu”) is an ingenious Incan counting and record keeping system. According to the British Museum, it was first introduced by the Wari and further developed by the Incas. A khipu was made up of a series of cords in rows: each one is colored, ordered, twisted, and knotted in such a way as to store information. Virtually anything could be recorded or expressed in a khipu like census records, business transactions, debts, and harvest records. According to the BM, Spanish chronicles mention that they were also used to record histories, poems, and songs. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica: “The type of knot tied and its position on the pendant relative to the top cord records a numeric value. Three basic types of knot, each with two possible orientations (called “S” and “Z”), have been identified: an “E-knot,” or figure-8 knot…represents a single unit; a “long knot” in which the cord is wrapped around itself from 2 to 9 times represents a number from 2 to 9, depending on the number of times it is wrapped; and a single knot (a simple standard knot) represents 10 or multiple powers of 10, depending on its relative position to the top cord. The numeric value of a cluster of single knots is determined by counting the number of knots in the cluster and multiplying it by 10.” There are over 600 examples in museums world-wide, and archeologists are discovering more all the time. The important work of of gathering together the collections into an online database at Harvard is happening now.

What is interesting to me about this is that this tool and the method for using it, is that it created another class of occupations: the Khipu Specialist. It took a lot to learn this complex system and the khipu created a class of information managers who were the only ones well-versed enough into the system to use it effectively. I imagine that a decline in this knowledge would have led to some very interesting problems for Incan society very much like the difficulties faced by businesses still using COBOL. As it was, the use of khipu came to an abrupt end in the 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in South America which wiped-out the Inca people in one generation within 30 years. The Spanish burned every khipu they found as they believed they were ungodly. I am not sure if there was a ever a Personal Khipu which still would have created yet another class of Khipu Support Personnel: “What do you mean its not working? Have you tried shaking it and then tying and untying the knots again?”

Is a khipu a computer? I think modern definitions of what a computer is are very limiting.  Merriam-Webster online at least says “a programmable usually electronic device that can store, retrieve, and process data.” The Oxford says that it is “A calculating-machine; esp. an automatic electronic device for performing mathematical or logical operations; freq. with defining word prefixed, as analoguedigitalelectronic computer.” A khipu is obviously used for data storage and retrieval, and mathematical calculations, so I will argue that it is a form of analogue computer. I will class this along with various examples or kinds of abaci known to be in use for the last 5000 years.

Despite these examples, we often act like computing and data management is something new. We use language like “artificial intelligence” where the intelligence (or the lack of it) is clearly coming from us. Humans count things. I wonder if there is not a stage in our evolution that we should call “Homo Computatis”? We seem to do this naturally, but we don’t seem to teach it very well because we still seem to have those divides in our society between those who manage information and those who consume it. And yet, the same consumers who lack the technological literacy are the same ones who have to make decisions everyday about how the government, institutions like colleges, and their own personal technology uses their own personal data and information.

These videos are from the British Museum’s YouTube channel where curator Nicole Rode tells the story of her khipu conservation project, and how it became her favorite object in the British Museum. The episode above is a continuation of the last episode of Curator’s Corner, which you can also watch here:

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