The Inca Quipus and The Inca Calendar According to Guamán Poma

The chronicler Guaman Poma, in his long description of Andean life in pre-Hispanic and colonial times, mentions the use of quipus. He does so in three texts, drawings and on one occasion includes an apparatus similar to an abacus. Although, in the early seventeenth century, he is not an early chronicler, his graphic descriptions aided such that at present we can know how these were used.

In the third text and drawing, Guamán Poma first describes a quipucamayoc, one who carried and read the quipus, who is not from Cuzco. His title translated into Spanish is “Tezorero mayor” (greater treasurer) and in Quechua, the language of the Incas, like ” Tawantin suyo runa quipoc yncap haziendan chasquicoc “, Which Urioste translates as “the keeper of the people of Tawantin Suyo.” Guaman Poma’s illustration shows the accountant holding the quipu, and in his first text describes him as a noble non-Inca provincial administrator (suyuyoc), whose function was to count, command and possess these quipus.

In the second part of the text, Guaman Poma mentions two types other than the quipucamayoc. He mentions a major accountant or treasurer, a “hatun hucha quipoc” and a minor one, a “huchuy hucha quipoc”. These officials worked with the tables, which were probably a type of abacus like the one that was pictured next to the treasurer. These secretaries had quipus of dyed colors and are denominated quilca camayoc or quilla uata quipoc, those that count the moons and the years.

Quipucamayoc, Guaman Poma
Quipucamayoc, Guaman Poma

Guaman Poma first keeps these two types of specialists separate, but then concludes that each town and village had these treasurers and accountants. As a result, different theories were raised of how the “table” could have been used as an abacus, but there is no clue as to how a 55-unit system distributed over 20 squares was used to perform the algebraic functions of addition, subtraction, multiplication or division studied by Urton (1997).

As we can see, according to Guamán Poma and other chroniclers, the quipus were very useful in the time of the Incas, and could be used in different ways.

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