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Rope of Many Colors, an Inca System of Communication

Click here for details on quipus and how to make your own!
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Suppose you didn't have a written language and you had to keep track of the amount of taxes due or other kinds of records? The Incas did not know writing, but they knew math and they created a system of recording data by means of a quipu (KEE poo) [or khipu in Quechua]. To the north, the Mayan civilization created a written language in the form of hieroglyphs - symbols that represent whole words, syllables and vowels. (If you'd like to find out how to spell your name in Mayan, visit this Web site: Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing

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This means, You owe me thirty dollars - maybe
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The Incas were very organized and the government was always keeping track of areas under its control. They sent and received many messages a day, relaying all sorts of information from the amount of taxes due to how many workers there were at a site. (Governments haven't changed much in their need to know.) Runners were sent from station to station, set about 8-15 miles apart, to carry the messages. At each station, an arriving runner would hand off the message to a rested runner, who would then carry the message onward. The messages had to be light and compact so that the runners could carry them easily.

Check out this colorful Quipu on a website in French!
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The messages were called a quipu, which is a device made of colored and braided cotton cords or strings with knots in them. There is one main cord from which other cords hang. All sorts of information could be communicated according to the colors, the type of knot used and where it was placed, the kinds of braids, how the cords were connected, and the spaces between the cords and the knots.

Click here for details on quipus and how to make your own!
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In the early 1920's, a man by the name of Leland L. Locke figured out that quipus were a means to do math, kind of like the Chinese abacus, but more complicated. In Incan times, only certain people, the quipu-makers, knew how to "read" and "write" the quipus. Some later researchers think that different versions of quipus also told stories or poems. But no one really knows how to interpret those knots.

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