It is said that the American Indians did not have any system of writing before they were visited by their rather rude European guests. True, they did not have letters written on paper or parchment. They did, however, have other ways of recording what they needed to know. Cultures such as the Aztec used hieroglyphs somewhat in the style of the Egyptians. In South America, the Quechua (or Inca) empire made use of knots.

A quipu is a piece of string with several string pendants attached to it, sometimes with further subsidiaries. The cotton strings are of different colours and knotted in various ways. There are simple, small knots and bigger, more twisted ones. A quipu looks strange and mysterious to the casual viewer. To the Quechua of old, it also had meaning.

The quipu were mainly used for accounting. They told the Inca how many subjects he had, the officils what laws to keep, and kept track of all the goods of a warehouse keeper. Depending on the colour of the cord, the size of the knots and the distance between them, different meanings could be understood. Clusters of zero to nine knots would count ones, tens, hundreds and so on. A base 10 positional system, in other words.

There were several meanings for each colour, depending on the use of the quipu. Generally gold would be yellow, the army red, and peace would be white. Objects could also be ranked according to quality. In that case the lance, the most honourable weapon, would come first, then arrows, bows, axes and so on.

Some archeologists, as well as Quechua descendants, also maintain that the quipu were used for preserving epic poems and legends. With different colours symbolising various items and knots representing syllables, it is likely that the quipu served at least as a mnemonic device for the old poets.

In the beginning of their colonisation the Spanish would accept quipu as evidence in court; but later missionaries claimed they were tools of the devil and had them destroyed. Many quipu had already been burned during the civil war of the Quechua before the arrival of Pizarro, and so the few that remain to us are ones found in graves. The only reason they can be interpreted is the stories the Quechua passed down through the generations, about the colourful writing system of ancient times.