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Dead medium: The Inca Quipo
From: (Bruce Sterling)
Source(s): "History of the Inca Empire: An account of the Indians' customs and their origin together with a treatise on Inca legends, history and social institutions by Father Bernabe Cobo Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton University of Texas Press 1979 Third reprinting 1991 This book is an excerpt from "Historia del Nuevo Mundo" a much larger manuscript completed in 1653 by Bernabe Cobo, a Peruvian Jesuit

p 252:

"In place of writing they used some strands of cord or thin wool strings, like the ones we use to string rosaries; and these strings were called *quipos.* By these recording devices and registers they conserved the memory of their acts, and the Inca's overseers and accountants used them to remember what had been received or consumed. A bunch of these *quipos* served them as a ledger or notebook. The *quipos* consisted of diverse strings of different colors, and on each string there were several knots. These were figures and numbers that meant various things. Today many bunches of very ancient *quipos* of diverse colors with an infinite number of knots are found. On explaining their meaning, the Indians that know them relate many things about ancient times that are contained in them. There were people designated for this job of accounting. These officials were called *quipos camayos,* and they were like our historians, scribes, and accountants, and the Incas had great confidence in them.

"These officials learned with great care this way of making records and preserving historical facts. However, not all of the Indians were capable of understanding the *quipos;* only those dedicated to this job could do it; and those who did not study *quipos* failed to understand them. Even among the *quipo camayos* themselves, one was unable to understand the registers and recording devices of others. Each one understood the *quipos* that he made and what the others told him. There were different *quipos* for different kinds of things, such as for paying tribute, lands, ceremonies, and all kinds of matters pertaining to peace and war. And the *quipo camayos* customarily passed their knowledge on to those who entered their ranks from one generation to the next. The *quipo camayos* explained to the newcomers the events of the past that were contained in the ancient *quipos* as well as the things that were added to the new *quipos;* and in this way they explain everything that that transpired in this land during all the time that the Incas governed. These *quipos* are still used in the *tambos* to keep a record of what they sell to travellers, for the *mitas,* for herders to keep track of their livestock, and for other matters. And even though many Indians know how to read and write and have traded their *quipos* for writing, which is without comparison a more accurate and easier method, still, in order to show the great subtlety of this method of preserving history and keeping accounts for people who had no writing and what they achieved with it, I wish to give the following example of what happened in our times.

"Two Spaniards left together from the town of Ica to go to the city of Castro Virreina, and arriving at the *tambo* of Cordoba, which is a day's travel from Ica, one of them stayed there and the other continued his trip; at this *tambo* this latter traveller was given an Indian guide to accompany him to Castro Virreina. This Indian killed the Spaniard on the road and returned to the *tambo.* After some time passed, since the Spaniard was very well known, he was missed. The governor of Castro Virreina, who at that time was Pedro de Cordoba Mejia, a native of Jaen, made a special investigation to find out what had happened. And in case the man had been killed, he sent a large number of Indians to look for the body in the puna and desert. But no sign of him could be found, nor could anyone find out what had become of him until more than six years after he had been killed.

"By chance the body of another Spaniard was found in a cave of the same desert. The governor ordered that this body be brought to the plaza so that it could be seen, and once it was brought, it looked like the one the Indian had killed, and, believing that it was he, the governor continued witht he investigation to discover the killer. Not finding any trace or evidence against anybody, he was advised to make an effort to find out the identity of the Indian who was given to the deceased as a guide at the *tambo* or Cordoba. The Indians would know this in spite of the fiact that more than six years had passed because by means of the record of the *quipos* they would have kept memory of it. With this the governor sent for the caciques and *quipo camayos.* After they were brought to him and he continued with the investigation, the *quipo camayos* found out by their *quipos* the identity of the Indian who had been given as a guide to the aforementioned Spaniard. The Indian guide was brought prisoner immediately from his town, called Guaytara, and, having given his declaration in which he denied the crime, he was questioned under torture, and at once confessed to having killed the man, but explained that the wrong body had been brought. However, he would show them the place where he had killed the man and where the body was located. Police officers went with him to the puna, and they found the body where the Indian guide had hidden it, and it was in a cave located some distance from the road. With the great cold and dryness of the paramo, the body had not decomposed, but it had dried out, and thus it was whole. The first body that was brought was never identified, nor was the killer. The extent of the achievement of the record and memory of the *quipos* can be appreciated by this case."