Quipu: A Note on Colonialism

A while back I watched a BBC documentary series called Lost Kingdoms of South America. It went into very little detail about anything from the point that Colonialism began to dominate the continent. Presumably, the justification for this is that the documentary wished only to study the “lost kingdoms” themselves. We don’t need to know why the “kingdoms” were “lost”. We don’t need to know that the very concept of genocide comes from the brutality of Colonialism. We don’t need to know that in 1928, the United Fruit Company massacred up to 2,000 people in 1 day in the Banana massacre. We’re shit-munchers, remember? 

In this instance, I’m going to take the BBC up on their ridiculous assertion & their attempts to normalise Colonialism & Imperialism. I’m going to focus on 1 specific portion of their analysis, in 1 episode of the documentary. In other words, we’re going to talk about this beautiful object:


The image above is of a quipu. It appears, to any1 not already familiar with it, to be a sort of necklace. This is incorrect: the quipu is, in fact, far more interesting than that, far more advanced than a mere ornament. Originating in the Andean region of Southern America, perhaps earlier than 3000BC, the quipu is an instrument of communication, an ergodic language. It is composed using a system of wires, tassels & knots, made from animal hair. Anything could be written using the quipu – a note, a novel, a set of instructions for building – literally anything. The reader would interpret the message based upon a variety of factors: the length of the wire, the girth of the knot, the position of the knot in relation to the tips of the wire etc. They are incredibly intricate & complex objects, as with all languages.

I want you to really take that in, the understand how magnificent it is that an such an object can exist as a result of human development & society. Understand as well that this is 1 of the oldest forms of writing that exists, younger than cuneiform but far older than the Latin script. Take as well, that the pre-requisite for the existence of such a language is the existence of a society that can understand & sustain it – in other words, the pre-requisite is a society that has achieved both human & cultural consciousness. In order to destroy a language it is therefore necessary to destroy its culture, which is composed of human beings – an aggregate of real, living & breathing individuals. A necessary step, in the destruction of a language, is genocide.

The word “quipu” itself is the Spanish spelling of the Cusco Quecha[1] word for “knot”. This, in itself, is telling. As the Spanish Empire invaded Southern America & subordinated the continent to its rule, the quipu was removed from use. As I have already said, a necessary step toward the destruction of a language is genocide. However, to communicate this correctly, we need to look at what exists now, in the real world. Around 600 unique variants of the form remain in existence. However, there is now not a single person upon our planet that is able to read them. Not 1. The peoples that used the quipu – the Inca & the Chachapoya to name but 2 on record – are either extinct or speak Spanish. Mostly, they are extinct.

Further to this point, it is unlikely that the quipu shall ever be read again. The reason for this are simple: to our knowledge, nowhere else on the planet has developed a writing system parallel to the knot system seen here. There is nothing, whatsoever, to compare & translate the quipu in accordance with. An entire culture, an entire system of language, an entire people is dead & gone as a consequence of Spanish Colonialism. The quipu is, therefore, symbolic of an absolute barbarity. It is symbolic of genocide & the extinction of societies.

Why, then, do the BBC not tell us this? Why does the bourgeois media, in the realm of history, not wish us to understand the depth of violence committed in the period of Colonialism? To a Marxist, this should be very simple: the old Colonial states – of which Britain is the oldest – have not ceased to exercise their dominance or the bloodshed that it causes. Take, for example, the 1st Imperialist War:

‘The tens of millions of dead and maimed left by the war—a war to decide whether the British or German group of financial plunderers is to receive the most booty—and those two “peace treaties”, are with unprecedented rapidity opening the eyes of the millions and tens of millions of people who are downtrodden, oppressed, deceived and duped by the bourgeoisie. Thus, out of the universal ruin caused by the war a world-wide revolutionary crisis is arising which, however prolonged and arduous its stages may be, cannot end otherwise than in a proletarian revolution and in its victory.’[2]

Or Imperialism in general:

‘Private property based on the labour of the small proprietor, free competition, democracy, all the catchwords with which the capitalists and their press deceive the workers and the peasants are things of the distant past. Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression [italics here mine – JRB] and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of “advanced” countries. And this “booty” is shared between two or three powerful world plunderers armed to the teeth (America, Great Britain, Japan), who are drawing the whole world into their war over the division of their booty.’ (Lenin)

It is important not to be drawn into the artificial representation of history in sources like this, otherwise 1 is drawn into a picture of history where Colonialism & Imperialism are normal, normative & healthy. If we are to accept the image of historical development presented to us by the bourgeoisie, then we accept genocide to be normal, inevitable or even desirable as a necessary part to the “supremacy” of European societies – an obviously racist assumption. Colonialism & Imperialism are not normal; they are violence in its most supreme form.

The full episode of the documentary is below.

[1] The native Incan language.

[2] V.I. Lenin, ‘Preface to the French and German Editions’, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), reproduced on Marxists’ Internet Archives: http://goo.gl/hLgyFa.


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