The Inca Empire

Which ancient civilization didn't develop a written language?

And the answer: the Inca.    

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons. 

Although they developed the largest empire in the Western hemisphere, the Incas have long been considered the only major civilization that failed to develop a system of writing. Instead, they used a system of knotted strings to record information.

Instead of writing the language of Quechua, the Incas used an incredibly unique and intricate device called a khipu, or quipu. The khipu is a knot record utilizing the decimal system to convey information based on the number and type of knots presented on each string. Recent historian efforts have centered around a transcription of Quechua using the Roman alphabet. However, modern spellings of Quechua words are often contested.

Although we don't know exactly when the Inca culture began to emerge, historians estimate the rise of a distinct people group around the 13th century. However, it wasn't until 1400 CE that the empire began to take shape. Often, then, when we talk about the Inca Empire, we refer to when the Incas transformed from one of the many dominant cultures in the Andes at the time to a conquering power that eventually ran from modern-day Argentina to modern-day Colombia. Unfortunately, the Inca Empire lasted only about a century, as instability and illness lead to Spanish acquisition in 1532.

Certain aspects of Inca culture and society are still very much upheld and integrated into modern day Andean society. One such concept is ayni, which is a Quechua word that translates to “today for you, tomorrow for me.” This word encompasses the concept that we all live in an interdependent society and that every individual must give before receiving. During the Inca Empire, the concept of ayni was most reflected in rituals like pagos a tierra, in which shamans and witnesses gave various material and earthly goods back to Pachamama (Mother Earth). This was to honor and thank Pachamama for the great bounty she provided. To this day, pagos a la tierra are a common practice in Andean agricultural communities.

Learn more about the Inca Empire here.

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