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Talking Knots

Textiles are as old as the hills. Textile fiber can be braided, hooked, woven, felted, and used to create in a multitude of ways. But even as far back as the first millennium, in the Andes of South America and during the time of the Incan empire, knotted textiles were the primary counting and communication device. These “talking knots”, or “knot records” were called quipus.

Above, you can see a particularly lovely example of an Incan quipu (pronounced kē-pu), from the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru. From Wikipedia: “A quipu usually consisted of colored, spun, and plied thread or strings made from cotton or camelid fiber. For the Inca, the system aided in collecting data and keeping records, ranging from monitoring tax obligations, properly collecting census records, calendrical information, and military organization.”

Here is another example, this one from about 1300 AD, again from the Larco Museum, of this quite precise and highly portable system:

There are good records of quipus from the first millennium through the 1500s, and ethnographers have unravelled their secrets, by and large. The fibers were either spun and plied thread such as wool or hair from alpaca, llama, guanaco or vicuña, or, more rarely, from cotton. Some of the knots, as well as other features, such as color, are thought to represent non-numeric information, but these secondary elements have not yet been deciphered.

For an explanation of how the counting works, let’s turn to Wikipedia:

“Each cluster of knots is a digit, and there are three main types of knots: simple overhand knots; “long knots”, consisting of an overhand knot with one or more additional turns; and figure-eight knots. A number is represented as a sequence of knot clusters in base 10.”

Here is another quipu (also spelled khipu), again from the Larco Museum in Lima:

The use of quipus as a central part of record-keeping faded out after the Spanish conquest of South America in the 1530s, though the Spanish would sometimes use them to settle local village disputes. But today, they are still used for ceremonies and rituals, and continue to be a powerful symbol of native heritage. Here is another, even more complex example, this time from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, an ethnology museum in Germany:

Similar systems of counting were used by the ancient Chinese and native Hawaiians, and there is even a similarity to the bead-counting of wampum, in Native American culture. But quipus were a quite advanced system. The type of knot, the position of it on the string, the total number of knots and the sequence of the knots could all combine to create a potentially huge number of meanings. The whole method was based on a decimal system, like ours, with the largest decimal used being 10,000.

The Quipucamayocs (“quipu-authority”), were the accountants, those who created and deciphered the quipu knots. Quipucamayocs, once trained, could carry out basic arithmetic operations, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. They kept track of taxation, the type of labor being performed, maintained a record of economic output, and ran a census that counted everyone from infants to “old blind men over 80”. The system was also used to keep track of the calendar. According to one authority, quipucamayocs could “read” the quipus with their eyes closed.

Does this have to do with rughooking? Well, no. But it is a pretty fascinating and elegant use of textiles as a complex code, and as textile artists, something good for us to know about!

For more pictures of quipus, go to www.museolarco.org and if you would like a more technical explanation of the counting system of knots, look to this article in Wikipedia, or this good general article from the Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Rejoice in your work, and hook on!


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