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South America's Oldest Writing System

Quipu Found at Caral Nearly 5000 Years Old


Inca Quipu

Inca Quipu, Narrative Threads (Quilter and Urton eds)

Bill Conklin

Archaeologists excavating at the ancient Peruvian coastal civilization called Caral have recovered an artifact which may represent one of the earliest forms of communication in the world, roughly equivalent in age to the cuneiform of Mesopotamia.

The early civilization known as Caral was first reported in 2001, as a collection of at least 18 separate towns and villages on the northern coast of Peru, dated to approximately 4600 years ago. The discovery was of vast importance, because, on the basis of the dates, Caral is the earliest of the sophisticated civilizations in the Americas, and was one of the few civilizations on the planet which apparently developed without a form of written communication.

Quipu Usage

Archaeologists believe that most civilizations—those that develop public projects such as monumental architecture, and have a geographically wide distribution that was controlled—require some form of record keeping to arise and survive. The exceptions include the Inca civilization, which did not have anything we modern people recognize as writing. What the Inca had were quipu, a complicated system of knotted cords of different colors. Many of these quipus (also spelled khipus) were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, but approximately 200 of them dating no earlier than about 650 AD have been found. Although archaeologists do not all agree about the function of the knotted strings, one fairly compelling argument is that the quipu was a method of record keeping.

Quipu at Caral

The recovery of quipu from the civilization of Caral, if the context and dates are correct, suggests several things. First, this is additional evidence that Caral was a precursor to the Inca civilization (since the Incas also used quipu). Secondly, quipu as a tradition dates at least 2000 years older than we recognized prior to this point. Thirdly, and most importantly, if quipu were indeed a form of written communication, they are among the earliest forms of writing in the world, only slightly younger than cuneiform, which has been identified at the Mesopotamian site of Uruk approximately 3000 years BC.

As a very recently identified civilization of the world, Caral has the potential to help us rewrite human history.


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Brooks, Nick 2007 Cultural responses to aridity in the Middle Holocene and increased social complexity. Quaternary International 15129–49.

Fossa, Lydia 2000 Two khipu, one narrrative: Answering Urton's question. Ethnohistory 47(2):453-468.

Haas, Jonathan and Winifred Creamer 2006 Crucible of Andean Civilization: The Peruvian Coast from 3000 to 1800 BC. Current Anthropology 47(5):745-775.

Haas, Jonathan, Winifred Creamer, and Alvaro Ruiz 2004 Dating the Late Archaic occupation of the Norte Chico region in Peru. Nature 432:1020-1023.

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Quilter, Jeffrey and Gary Urgon. 2002. Narrative Threads: Accounting and Recounting in Andean Khipu. University of Texas Press: Austin.

Urton, Gary and Carrie J. Brezine 2005 Khipu Accounting in Ancient Peru. Science 309:1065-1067.

Vega-Centeno Sara-Lafosse, Rafael 2005 Ritual And Architecture in a Context of Emergent Complexity: A Perspective From Cerro Lampay, A Late Archaic Site In The Central Andes. PhD dissertation: University of Arizona, Tucson.

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