Pre-Incas kept detailed records too

Posted by Chris Parker
Jul 25 2005

Jude Webber
Wednesday, 20 July 2005

Archaeologists say the string arrangement, known as a quipu or khipu, indicates ancient Americans were expert communicators thousands of years earlier.

Until now the oldest known quipus, often associated with the Incas, dated from about 650 AD.

But Dr Ruth Shady, an archeologist leading investigations into the Peruvian coastal city of Caral, says quipus were among a treasure trove of articles discovered at the site, which is about 5000 years old.

“This is the oldest quipu and it shows us that this society … also had a system of ‘writing’ [which] would continue down the ages until the Inca empire and would last some 4500 years,” Shady says.

The quipu with its well-preserved, brown cotton strings wound around thin sticks, was found with a series of offerings including mysterious fibre balls of different sizes wrapped in ‘nets’ and pristine reed baskets.

“We are sure it corresponds to the period of Caral because it was found in a public building,” Shady says. “It was an offering placed on a stairway when they decided to bury this and put down a floor to build another structure on top.”

Pyramid-shaped public buildings were being built at Caral, a planned coastal city 180 kilometres north of Lima, at the same time that the Saqqara pyramid, the oldest in Egypt, was going up.

“Man only began living in an organised way 5000 years ago in five points of the globe: Mesopotamia (roughly comprising modern Iraq and part of Syria), Egypt, India, China and Peru,” Shady says.

This quipu was found in Peru, at the site of the oldest city in the Americas (Image: Reuters/Pilar Olivares)
Shady says no equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, which deciphered the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, have yet been found to fully unlock the language of the quipus.

But she says their existence points to a sophisticated, organised society where information like production, taxes and debts were recorded.

“They came up with their own system because unlike cities in the Old World, which had contact with each other and exchanged knowledge and experiences, this [city] in Peru was isolated in the Americas, and advanced alone.”

Caral’s arid location at an altitude of 3500 meters has helped to preserve its treasures, like piles of raw cotton, still uncombed and containing seeds, though turned a dirty brown by the ages, and a ball of cotton thread.

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