The Inca manipulated strings and knots to convey certain meanings on a device was called khipus (pronounced kee-poos). They used combinations of knots to represent numbers and were used to inventory stores of beans, corn, and other provisions. It also encoded letters, history, and even biographies. In addition to this, the box contained dozens of letters dating to the 17th and 18th centuries. It is believed that alphabetic writing influenced the makers of khipus.
It was also discovered that this device had 14 different string colors, fiber and twist direction to distinguish 95 unique patterns that were distinct enough to constitute a writing system — and proposed a phonetic decipherment. Most 20th century scholars believed that khipus were memory aids that used knots to record numerical data such as inventories, censuses, and tributes.
The strings typically consisted of a top cord where pendants are attached. These pendants involve groupings of knots and other pendants. The more complex khipus were made under the Imperial Inca and contained as many as 1,500 pendants that branched over six levels of subsidiaries. Simpler ones were comprised of just a few strings and knots and were mostly used by herders to count their animals.
Kept a secret from outsiders, the khipus were stored in a wooden box that until its discovery. At the height of their civilization, the Inca may have produced thousands of khipus, perhaps even hundreds of thousands. But archaeologists suspect that natural deterioration and European colonizers destroyed most of the devices. To date, less than 1000 are known to exist.
Most of the 900 or so surviving khipus are ancient artifacts, curated in museums and other collections. However, in some remote mountain villages, khipus were made and incorporated into use into the 20th century.
Although no one today can directly read them, communities preserve these khipus as cultural heritage. Such is the case with two khipus that are in the village of San Juan de Collata, Peru. Their symbolism has most likely changed and evolved over the centuries, changing use and context. The information from narrative letters was probably recorded differently from that of accounting khipus, or those used by herders.
Examples of some knots used
Of all the major Bronze Age civilizations, only the Inca of South America appeared to lack a written language. However, perhaps the only Incan example of a written language was in the form of their khipus encoding and information recording. If khipus are in fact their medium of writing, this is entirely different from any of the known ancient scripts. In fact, this three-dimensional binary code is similar to today's computer language.
By an accumulation of binary choices, khipus makers encoded and stored information in a shared system of record keeping that could only be read within the Inca community, akin to a secret cultural code. The Inca may have even used cloth to store and communicate information; cloth was a popularly used signifier of wealth, status, and even political standing.
These amazing khipu texts of the central Andes, including the logo-syllabic animal fiber cords, are proof of the level of intellectual achievements of Native American peoples from centuries ago.