Stringing together a database

By Roger Davies / 5 July 2015 / Data Manipulation, History, Insights

I’ve blogged before about historic database development, with details of Fouche’s system of security databases in France in the late 18th century and Linneaus’s database structures.  But this blog is about an even earlier and much more mysterious database system that seems to have been used for OSINT and other purposes.  Not only that but it’s a 3D system using both base ten and, some believe, binary coding.

Image attributed: Claus Ableiter

Image attributed: Claus Ableiter

The ancient Incas (or Inkas) had a database tool called a Quipu.  This was a complex object consisting of knotted string.  On one level, the Quipu appears to have worked as a tally system, allowing the recording of numbers perhaps relating to tax obligations, harvests, census details, and military organisations. It seems also that a Quipu could be used for temporal representations of data, but in truth there is much unknown about the use of the Quipu.

A small quipu

A small quipu

At the simplest interpretation, a quipu uses knots to represent decimal base numbers.  1 knot = 1, a double knot = 2, etc up to 9.  0 is represented by a gap in the string where a number would be expected. In mathematical terms that fact that the Incans represent zero by “ a gap” is interesting in itself. The Incan empire in South America appears to have used these as tools for recording administrative, statistical governmental information and data, between about 1450 and 1530n AD, immediately prior to the arrival of the Spanish, though there are indications that earlier civilisation used them to a degree.  The Incan empire was a complex organisation covering 12 million people and perhaps as many as 20 separate languages , so an empire-wide consistent tool for recording activities in that empire was crucial.

Spanish historians assessed that as well as acting as “tallys”, the quipus appeared to enable a form of mnemonic narrative communication.  Quipu specialists were called to Incan courts and their records were recognised within the courts as being valid evidential material.   Although the quipu seems to have operated as a narrative tool, the link with language if any is not at all clear, and subject to different opinions. One line of thought is that villages and towns were assigned three digit “postal codes” enabling information to be related to that specific village.  the role of the Quipu reader or specialist is also interesting in the implication of the power they could wield and their consequent importance in Incan society.

One of the challenges in understanding quipus is that the Spanish conquistadores actively sought out and destroyed quipus being used by the Incan people – they saw their mysterious use as threatening to the implementation of Spanish control.  It seems to that not unreasonably the Incans sought to hide and protect their quipus, making the Spanish even more suspicious of their use.

The simple Base ten numerical recording is shown below (from and further details are also here
Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 18.20.52

The quipus get really interesting though when extra “layers” of complexity are used, according to one as yet unproven theory.   At the simplest level, a series of numbers are recorded.  The next step up appears to be assigning a series of numbers as representative of a place or a person, with subsequent numbers relating to that place or person.  So already, in modern terminology we have a form of geocoding, or the ability to build dossiers on individuals.  At the next level a series of quipu strings along a horizontal string seems in some cases to represent temporal analysis, with one quipu being interpreted as an historical narrative, with a red coloured string signifying the accession of an Incan king, and the strings either side of this “date” string providing the narrative of his conquests before and after his accession.  This seems to include standard military intellligence components such as size of armies, etc. Other quipus seem to refer to the logistics of weapons, types and and quantities, and of battles and military operations.  One remarkable quipu is interpreted as being related to a real star map of calendrical data.

There is a fascinating theory that additional layers of data can be further added by the colour of the string, by the material the string is made of and the direction of weave of the string.  In terms of colours, red was for recording military items, yellow was gold, etc.   Some believe that variegated coloured threads are codes for administrative districts.   A Black cord was used as the horizontal string for temporal records indicating that the strings hung from it were then in chronological order.

One  astonishing interpretation of quipu by a Harvard professor, Gary Urton, suggests that much more complex binary data can be theoretically encoded into quipu, particularly with various spinning the threads used in each string, colours and other binary indicators, on top of the simple decimal base numerics, and on top of the thematic, temporal or geo-codes.  It is even possible that the quipu represents an innovative written language – the one thing that Incan culture, unlike every other bronze age culture seems to be missing.

In this sense, quipu are a representation of a three dimensional, fabric based communication and database systems, allowing analysis of data in highly unusual, portable, three dimensional ways.   It’s fascinating to compare aspects of quipu data visualisation and its ability to record dossiers, links, and temporal analysis with modern highly visual data analysis tools.

Further reading is here



One comment on Stringing together a database

  1. Justin Arn

    Extraordinarily interesting,
    Thanks for the post.


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