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In this alternate history, Tawantinsuyo resisted all attempts at conquest. The reason is not very important; let's say a fluke storm killed all of Pizarro's men shortly after they started engaging the Inca, who, magically resistant to all Old World disease, adapted to modern weaponry rapidly. Any subsequent invasions they held off valiantly, and the shared enemy coalesced their previously divided nation into a cohesive, centralised country. The centuries passed, and over time they modernised with the rest of the world. Assume there was never any specific period of isolation; they had friendly and not so friendly contacts throughout the ages, they were just never conquered.

Now, in our history, the Inca had no conventional system of writing, in the sense of inscriptions or markings that can be read. Instead, they used a system of knotted threads called the Quipu for administration, and possibly, communication. They looked like this:

quipu

Now, debate is ongoing over whether this system was phonemic or not. I am going to assume that it was phonemic, or that it became that shortly after its use diminished in our timeline.

So, assume that you can "write" everything using quipu. It has native representation for every sound, and thus everything you want to say. Imagine it can do anything our writing does, except it is made of rope.

My question is: would the Inca ever, between the 1530s and the 1990s when computers became commonplace, have needed to use paper notation and thus a standard script? Obviously Inca translators would have needed to figure out alphabets of other tongues, but I am talking native use, by administrators and peasants alike. Assuming that a quipu can represent anything a more conventional writing system can, is there any practical issue with writing with rope that paper does not have?

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    $\begingroup$ If the Inca wants the empire to remain fairly small and backward, then communication and administration by quipu seems just fine. However, that merely pushes conquest back from the 1530s to perhaps the 1560s. An enduring independent Inca state requires a military prepared and capable of defeating small bands of muskets-and-horse Adventurers of the 1500s, larger columns of many hundreds (thousands) of regular infantry and cavalry in the 1700s, artillery in the 1800s, and air/armor/gas in the 1900s. Seems doubtful quipu will get them there. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jan 31 at 13:43
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    $\begingroup$ Non-European powers have had a history of feeling ashamed of their "backward" ways in comparison to world powers like the British and aspiring to imitate them. Likely they'd switch to paper even if they have a viable alternative. If only to harmonize with global trade (London's not going to put up with having to translate from qipu knots to paper for the paperwork). And that's ignoring the information density possible with knotwork, which is easily two orders of magnitude lower than modern book printing. $\endgroup$ – John O Jan 31 at 17:18
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    $\begingroup$ They got to the moon first: Core rope memory, and instead of weaving it being the sole chore of 'little old ladies', children can do it. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 31 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ You talk about using these things up until the age of computers. My first thought was of a paper-less Inca office with programmers feeding knotted-string programs into a mainframe instead of paper punch cards. Can you even imagine how incredibly horrible that would end up? It sounds like a bad Dilbert comic :) $\endgroup$ – bta Feb 1 at 0:15
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    $\begingroup$ For reference, if somebody will wander down this thread: the paper is Sabine Hylan, "Writing with Twisted Cords: The Inscriptive Capacity of Andean Khipus", in Current Anthropology, vol. 58, no. 3, June 2017. From Wikipedia: Sabine Hyland is an American anthropologist and ethnohistorian [...], currently Professor of World Christianity at the University of St Andrews. [...] The work of Hyland and other researchers [...] seeks to reframe the question of [...] what it means to have a "three-dimensional writing system" recorded through textile." $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 1 at 18:39
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Density

The problem with quipu is the information density. We don't know exactly how much literal information can contain a quipu, because we can't decipher the literal quipu yet. This books states:

Alothether 46 different items of information were kept on this recording device no larger than an ordinary kitchen mop.

In this case, the author is talking about a numeric quipu. However, if we assume that the literal quipu were able to have a similar information density (and this is a bold assumption), then you would have about 50 "words" on a quipu the size of a kitchen mop. So, something like 20*20*2 centimeters and 500 grams.

A books holds on average around 300 words on a page.

So, to store the same amount of information that a book of 200 pages holds, you will need around 1200 such quipus, weighting 600 kilograms.

Images, maps and the likes

A quipu won't make it possible to represent anything else than words and numbers. Maps and schemas are vital to convey some types of information and are going to be extremely arduous to represent with knots on rope.

Your question

In the points above, I explained why quipus can't efficiently replace paper. However, the Incas were doing relatively well before the spaniards arrived. So, maybe, if they are left alone as you describe, they could have kept going that way. I mean they did it for a long time, so probably nothing would prevent them to continue.

They are going to be limited in regards to information transportation, storage, diffusion etc... But for an empire of a limited size, it seems that this limitation is not a killer for a rather primitive civilisation.

Of course, your Inca civilisation isn't going to progress on every other topics as fast as a civilisation with paper would. And if they are competing for territory/resources with another civilisation, paper is a very strong advantage.

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    $\begingroup$ I was going to write the "images" part of this answer if I didn't find one. If you're going to have technology, you need drawings of machines and their parts. Quipu can't convey that, regardless how fine you make the cords and knots. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Jan 31 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm Incas were capable of producing thinner thread, like for clothing, but they did not use it for the quipus. Maybe it was too hard to read/write? Or not durable enough? $\endgroup$ – Legisey Jan 31 at 22:13
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    $\begingroup$ Information density could also be increased by using many colors of thread. That at least is less likely to make a mess than many colors of ink. They might already have been using that, not sure. $\endgroup$ – Cyrus Feb 1 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm: I wouldn't want to be the person trying to untangle and read a bunch of monofilament threads... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 1 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ A "word" is not an "item of information". An "item of information" is probably something like "the emperor owns 53,218 llamas". Still horrible information density, though. $\endgroup$ – Peter Shor Feb 2 at 23:39
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You'd need the weaving equivalent of a printing press

The printing press revolutionized "writing" and the spread of knowledge on paper. You no longer needed trained scribes laboring on each page of a book to copy it. This allowed literacy to spread across the population (eventually).

I expect that your Incas could make do with hand-knotted documents for administrative purposes, but they would slowly start lagging behind in development in the 19th century and more during the 20th. Inevitably your Inca scientists and intellectuals would learn to read foreign paper-based stuff and so start the spread of paper.

A weaving "press"

The weaving press seems much more challenging than a printing press. The complexity of the knots in your example picture would be a challenge even for robots today. In addition you'd need a template (equivalent of the letter type plates printing presses used). It would need to hold instructions for the weaving/knotting machine that could trigger knots between threads at specific distances.

Unlike the metal letters in printing, the weaving instructions would be need to be translated, something like holes in a wooden slat that correspond to where the knots should be, with a hole between two threads meaning to tie the threads together. This would take specially trained people to translate the source rope to templates of high enough quality to be used by the machine.

The knotted ropes have some more scaling issues, mostly due to the lower information density and the awkwardness of blanket-sized "books". With some handwaving, you could make it work, though I wouldn't call it likely. It would definitely look awesome tough.

Also, good luck untangling your book after putting it away carelessly last night!

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    $\begingroup$ Not to mention blueprints. Those seem particularly hard to have a rope form for. $\endgroup$ – MartinArrJay Jan 31 at 12:23
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    $\begingroup$ Good point on the "weaving press". Regarding books, I think that they perhaps could simply lack them? China's literacy rate was around 20% in the 1960s when they simplified their alphabet. Poetry would be more common, because shorter ropes. And technical documents… that's a challenge. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Jan 31 at 12:25
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm I've added a note on other scaling issues. Being limited in message length for every kind of communication and knowledge storage would be a serious shortcoming. Kind of having tweets being your only way of writing... omg, your Incas are doomed! $\endgroup$ – Cyrus Jan 31 at 12:29
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    $\begingroup$ Since the alternative to not using paper is to use paper, there's the implied challenge of designing a writing system that most closely resembles the previous system based on knots, which I very much like. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jan 31 at 12:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Cyrus they did get pretty close to blanket-size in the end... $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Jan 31 at 12:33
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It seems to me like the natural way to "read" the knots in Quipu would be with the fingers which puts me in mind of Braille. As other posters have mentioned the fundamental problems with Quipu are information density and reproducibility. These are the problems your Alternative Inca will have to solve but coming from a background with a tactile alphabet they may develop novel solutions. Perhaps they will weave complex patterns that can be felt, or embroider information onto canvas, or punch it into papyrus.

Ultimately it's difficult to beat the density, durability, and reproducibility of paper books. Maybe when your Incas acquire paper technology they continue to use their own tactile alphabet to print the Quipu on paper.

Maybe they develop metal cylinders with information encoded in bumps. These cylinders are at first sized to fit in the hand and be read by touch but are later fed into machines (at first entirely mechanical) that reproduce sounds or have a display that can be felt. Later the cylinders are miniaturized and the machines increase in complexity to read more information dense encodings. Mathematics, specifically information theory and compression algorithms become a specialty of these people. These machines progress to electromechanical and eventually electronic devices.

There would have to be a strong preference for this tactile alphabet so perhaps this culture places a very high value on tradition and history.

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Awful information density

As cyrus said in his answer, you can't mass produce anything with this system. but there is another problem: information density. Even if we stick with numbers, you need a new rope for each 3 digits. 203 956 for example would need 2 little ropes. And it's quite simple as there are only three types of knots, one for the hundreds, one for the tens, one for the units. dealing with text would mean either a ton of different knot, lot of ropes, or both.

This answer for example, would stick in a little piece of paper, but would need a lot of ropes to represent it. Paper is just way more useful, as you can keep and carry way more information in a way smaller object

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    $\begingroup$ Huh? There is no way you need a new rope for each three digits. Each knot represented a digit. How many knots can you get on a rope? Way more than three. $\endgroup$ – Peter Shor Feb 2 at 23:33
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I haven't tried using it, but quipu looks like a horribly slow way to record a message. Unless the old way of doing things was enforced with a hideous fanaticism, I can't see the Aztec scribes using quipu for very long once they saw how quickly a Spaniard could dash off a message with ink and paper.

This is most especially important in a military situation; if your opponent's messenger is five miles down the road before you've finished up the first paragraph, the situation is not optimal (for you).

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In order to flesh out your advanced Inca empire, you might want to research three subjects: Ada Lovelace, tree structuring, and the Yupana.

Ada Lovelace. She was the first person to realize and write down the idea that the Babbage analytical engine was suitable for recording and manipulating textual data like Shakespeare's plays. She described a kind of textual analysis that might resemble what are called Ngrams today. All of this was about a century before the invention of ASCII. It's not hard to imagine the incans developing a numerical coding scheme for phonemes. For the sake of density, they might even develop a numerical scheme for concepts, resulting in a recording of numerical ideographs somewhat analogous to Chinese writing.

Tree Structuring. The quipu is not only capable of recording numbers, but also capable of imposing a tree structure on the numbers. The secondary strings all tie to the main string, which has no knots. But the tertiary strings tie into secondary strings between two knots, and that location is capable of expressing the tree structure associated with the numerical data. The incas were already using this tree structure to convey some kind of information, in order to put the numbers into some kind of context. It's easy to imagine them developing this concept into the same kind of concept that was used in the 1950s to develop languages like Lisp.

The Yupana. The Yupana was a calculating device used by incans to manipulate administrative information, particularly to work out tax burdens. Functionally, it was a little like an abacus, but less tightly structured. This would make it easier to generalize to operations other than arithmetic. The incans might have developed along these lines. If the quipu is analogous to a stone age internet, then the yupana is analogous to a stone age calculator.

Using all three of these concepts plus a suitably imaginative view of inca development after 1537, it's not hard to imagine them reaching roughly the Gutenberg level of sophisitication by about 1600, when the British began settling North America. All without paper.

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Information density vs Speed of information Processing

While paper offers higher information density (per grams) knots and quipu could offer support for faster information processing than paper:

  • more advanced ways of modelling information (though this could do with a bit of hand waving) but a recent branch of mathematics known as knot theory which would clearly apply to quipu could have been developped earlier in the inca empire and prove faster/better for solving some critical problems (war, logistics, ...)
  • more structured way of modelling information books and paper favors linear data structure, quipus are better for trees and could be extend to graphs
  • easier and faster ways to adjust information (changing knots and moving sub-knots from place to place).

Others:

  • might be longer lasting in the subtropical forest where paper rots very quickly
  • knot-punk instead of steam-punk: you could even think of some advanced parallel processing where the incas found ways to "program" ant-nests for complex parallel processing by making ants walk certains ways on special quipus.
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