Ways of recording information
The Inca civilisation had a complex administration system keeping detailed records of supplies, people, tributes, and stored goods. They also maintained over 40,000km (25,000 miles) of paved roadways with an State chaski messenger relay system.
As well as a rich oral culture, detailed records and messages were kept using quipus (kee-pooz). Instead of a system of written symbols (such as hieroglyphics or an alphabet), the Inca had a woven system of multi-coloured knots suspended from a central string. Different kinds of knots, their colour, and their position had different meanings that translated into a numerical system.
Creating a simple number cipher
To explore the concept of recording information without using a written language, we will begin by creating a simple number substitution cipher where A=1, B=2, C=3, etc. This will then get translated into a series of knotted beads.
- Coloured yarn
- Start by choosing a word that you want to record (such as a name); as in English, you will read this from left to right (with each letter being read from top to bottom).
- Weave a simple plait to act as your top anchor; it’s a good idea to have a loop at the left end so that it’s clear where to start reading from.
- Knot a piece of yarn to the top anchor (you can slip it through the plait before tying it to help make sure it doesn’t move). Attach the relevant number of beads to correspond with the letter you are recording and knot beneath them so that they don’t slide off.
- Letters A – I (numbers 1-9) will be represented by a corresponding number of beads close to the top anchor (i.e. A =1 bead).
- Letter J (10) will be be represented as a single bead further down the strand.
- Letters K-S (11-19) will be represented by a single bead further down the strand (representing one 10) with a knot to hold it in place, an approx. 5 cm gap, and then a group of beads to represent the ‘ones’ (i.e. S/19 will be one bead = 10, and then a group of nine beads = 9), and a knot to hold in place.
- Letters T – Z will be represented by two beads further down the strand (representing two 10) with a knot to hold in place, an approx. 5 cm gap, and then a group of beads to represent the ‘ones’ (i.e. Z/26 will be two beads = 20, and then a group of six beads = 6), and a knot to hold in place.
- Keep following Step 3, with a separate piece of yarn for each letter.
Lily (12/9/12/25) = One top anchor with four strands hanging from it. Reading from left to right, these will hold the following beads: low 1 (10) + 2 (2); high 9 (9); low 1 (10) + 2 (2); low 2 (20) + 5 (5).
Sam (19/1/13) = One top anchor with three strands hanging from it. Reading from left to right, these will hold: low 1 (10) + 9 (9); high 1 (1); low 1 (10) + 3 (3).
Tip: Older kids may want to create their own variation of this code by creating meaning based on the colour, size, or type of beads being used.
Want to find out more about the Inca?
One of my favourite books is proving to be Inca Discover the culture and geography of a lost civilisation. It’s well laid out, has plenty of pictures and infographics, and (very importantly) it has lots of ideas for easy to complete projects to help develop learning. This craft is inspired by one of their projects.
A wonderful animated short video for children is The Rise and Fall of the Inca Empire.
Want another project? Why not try making your own Inca Rope Suspension Bridge. This particular project references the Inca using rope bridges made of woven grass to cross narrow river canyons (such as the Keshwa Chaca – Quecha Bridge).
Want to learn more about Quipus? Try this short National Geographic video: Threads that Speak – How the Incas used strings to communicate.