Studies of Vedic mnemonics

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Thu May 18 02:59:00 UTC 2000

George Thompson writes:

> I am curious about such things as the Incan quipus which have been much
> discussed in the literature on mnemonics.   Would you be willing to comment
> on this device for us?  I have never been able to understand exactly how
> these rope things work.

A fine scholarly overview on quipu is found in Elizabeth Hill Boone
and Walter D. Mignolo, eds., _Writing without Words: Alternative
Literacies in Mesoamerica & the Andes_ (Durham and London, 1994). On
quipu, see esp. pp. 192-96 and 234-9. A more thorough examination is
found in Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher, _Mathematics of the Incas:
Code of the Quipu_ (Dover Publications, 1997). Earlier studies of
Marcia and Robert Ascher are also useful. I've posted a greyscale
photo of a quipu (I unfortunately don't have a colored one on file,
and the color is critical) at
What we know about quipus is partly conjectural, since we are
dependent on the descriptions of Spanish writers from the 16th
century, who didn't fully understand what they were describing.
The art of reading quipus was lost pretty quickly by the late 16th
century, thanks to Spanish repression.

It isn't totally clear whether we should classify quipus as mnemonic
systems or writing systems. One of the first books to describe them,
Acosta's _Historia natural y moral de las Indias_ (1590), claimed
that everything that could be recorded in Western books could be
described as well using the colors, knots, and spatial relations on
the different strings that make up quipus (see the illustration via
the link I've provided above). Acosta wrote:

  And in every bundle of these, so many greater and lesser knots,
  and tied strings; some red, others green, others blue, others
  white, in short, as many differences as we have with our
  twenty-four letters, arranging them in different ways to draw
  forth an infinity of words: so did they, with their knots and
  colors, draw forth innumerable meanings of things.

Apparently there was a tactile element to them as well. Ascher
and Ascher (1981) write:

  ...the quipu maker's way of recording -- direct construction --
  required tactile sensitivity to a much greater degree. In fact,
  the overall aesthetic of the quipu is related to the tactile: the
  manner of recording and the recording itself are decidedly
  rhythmic; the first in the activity, the second in the effect. We
  seldom realize the potential of our sense of touch, and we are
  usually unaware of its association with rhythm.... In fact,
  tactile sensitivity begins in the rhythmic pulsating environment
  of the unborn child far in advance of the development of other senses.

And some of this is strikingly reminiscent of Frits Staal's
discussion of rhythmicity in Vedic mnemonics in _Nambudiri Veda
Recitation_ (1961), esp. when he compares Nambudiri Veda recitation
with Aiyar Veda recitation (pp. 37-39). The difference here, of
course, is that in recitations using quipu, the 'rhythmicity'
was tactile and not oral. (Or was it both? See my final comments

It is interesting to note that the early Spaniards who encountered
quipus didn't understand that they were mnemonic devices. This saved
quipus from the inquisitional fires until near the end of the
sixteenth century. (Maya codices weren't so lucky, unfortunately: only
four remain.) Part of the reason they didn't recognize them as
memory devices worthy of destruction (since the best tool of
the conqueror is to destroy social memory) was linked to the fact that
the memory devices of the Inca were so *unlike* ordinary writing
systems or the Spaniards' own 'memory palaces' and 'memory theaters,'
which were used extensively in the New World.

With a little simplification, one could argue that there were at least
*three* basic types of mnemonic devices used in premodern times: the
orally interwoven devices associated with Vedic traditions; the visual
'memory palaces' and the like developed in the West from Greco-Roman
times on; and the tactile types used by the Incas (with similar
variants used elsewhere). That covers three of the five senses.
Someone could probably come up with a good argument that smells (e.g.,
in incense) and taste (in holy meals) served mnemonic functions as well.

My Sinologist friends uniformly deny that any mnemonic devices were
used in historical times by the Chinese, although there was a lot of
rote memorization of texts. Since the Chinese classics are relatively
short, and since there was no ban on them being written (indeed,
canonical sources were often 'fixed' in late antiquity in chiseled
stone) the same *need* for formal mnemonics didn't exist that
existed in India. Matteo Ricci's attempts to introduce 'memory
palaces' into China at the end of the 16th century were, by his own
admission, rather a failure.

I should point out finally that quipu was 'read' by a group of
specialists, the quipucamayocs, who served in a sense as 'scribes.'
The knowledge represented by the distributed knots, colors, textures,
etc., of each of the strings on the quipu could be quite extensive.
There is, for example, a long Spanish text describing the history of
the Incas, the _Relación de la Descendencia, Gobierno y Conquista de
Los Incas_, that is derived from the testimony in 1542 of seven
quipucamayocs, whose words were recorded by Spanish scribes. How
reproducible in *words* different recitations of a quipucamayoc
were is unknown, so far as I know. It would be interesting to know if
there was any link between the tactile 'rhythmicity' that Ascher and
Ascher note on the strings of quipus and 'rhythmicity' in the
recitations of the quipucamayocs. I don't know the answer, but I
certainly wouldn't be surprised if there were. If such a link existed,
it would suggest that parallels with Vedic mnemonics might not be
empty ones.

Steve Farmer

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