top of page
  • Tiz Creel

Quipu | Three-Dimensional Writing System

Quipus expand our understanding of what writing can be — multidimensional.

The quipu code is a language system using knotted strings, which was used by ancient cultures of the Andean region of South America, notably the Inca Empire. Considered a form of writing, it communicates complex and meaningful information through a symbolic system. Unlike alphabetic or logographic writing, it relies not on visual symbols but on tactile and spatial ones.

The quipu code was used for various purposes, such as accounting, taxation, census, calendrical, and military organisation. It was also a way of preserving historical, mythological, and religious narratives and planning future events. Over time, the quipus evolved to serve artistic and literary purposes.

Unfortunately, over time, knowledge of how to interpret quipus was lost. However, a Spanish census record was found to match the six quipus. This discovery was significant for deciphering ancient records.

The quipu has a central cord from which hangs several pendant cords of different colours, lengths, and knots. The position, direction, and type of the cords’ knots, colour, and material encode numerical and categorical data in a base-ten positional system.

According to Sabine Hyland, an anthropologist, some quipus have a logosyllabic system, where the knots and the fibres vary according to the sounds that make up words. The khipu writing system was three-dimensional, which made touch as important as sight.

Each knot, twist, and colour had a meaning. Some could reveal who owed what to whom, others could tell stories of the past and present. Quipus expands our understanding of what writing can be.


Deep Dive:

Quipu | SpringerLink | A comprehensive overview of the quipu code’s history, structure, and functions. It is written by Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher, two experts who have studied and described hundreds of quipus.

Quipu — Latin American Studies — Oxford Bibliographies | Annotated bibliography entry that lists and evaluates some of the most important sources on the quipu code, including books, articles, and websites. It is written by Gary Urton, a professor of anthropology and a leading authority on the quipu code.

Code of the Quipu | detailed descriptions of over 200 quipus, as well as references to other quipu descriptions and the locations of extant quipu specimens. It is maintained by Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher, the authors of the book Code of the Quipu: A Study in Media, Mathematics, and Culture.

The Khipu Database Project — Professor Gary Urton initiated the Khipu Database Project, which aimed to collect and analyse a large number of Khipus. Over 900 Khipus were gathered for detailed examination and study.

The College Student Who Decoded the Data Hidden in Inca Knots: Tells the story of Manuel Medrano, a Harvard student who deciphered a set of quipus by matching them to a Spanish census document.


— Tiz Creel (Founder of Living Things Studio ©2023)

Keep it curious.


bottom of page