List of Physical Visualizations
and Related Artifacts

2600 BC – Quipus


Quipus were complex assemblies of knotted ropes that were used in South America as a data storage device and played an important role in the Inca administration. Only a handful of specialists could use and decipher them. Their meaning mostly remains a mystery but it seems that color, relative position of knots, knot types and rope length were used to encode categorical and quantitative variables.

The oldest known Quipu is 4600 years old. In the late 16th century quipus were still being used by Peruvians until the Roman Catholic church decreed they were "the devil's work" and had most of them destroyed.


Added by Pierre Dragicevic on September 22, 2013. Category: Passive physical visualization Tags: , , , ,

  1. Erick Antezana says:


    The term 'Peruvian Quipus' is wrong. Peru didn't exist as a country or culture or whatever when the quipus were developed. The Incas develped such a storage means (e.g. accounting) long before Peru was founded. Please correct such a mistake. Possibly a better term would be: ' Inca Quipus'.



    • Thanks a lot Erick for this rectification. Problem fixed.

    • Someone above said this should be called an Inc Quipu, but that isn't quite right either. Inca didn't come along until 1400 CE. The quipu above is 4600 years old. That makes it from one if the following cultures: Honda, Lauricocha III,  is achano, or Sechin Bajo. I believe that the original description as a Peruvian Quipu is perfect because it was found in Peru as we now call it. Thank you for posting it! 🙂



  2. Robert Armour says:

    I'm not sure that these qualify as visualisations – the whole point of visualisations is to distill a complex data set into an easy to understand form. The description above states 'Only a handful of specialists could use and decipher them. Their meaning mostly remains a mystery…' which doesn't really describe 'easy to understand'

    • Hi Robert,

      Thanks for your thoughts. Deciding on what qualifies as a visualization is tricky, as there is no consensual definition. “Easy to understand” is a sensible but vague criterion: to whom? Amazon tribes likely don’t understand scatterplots. People could build visualizations for personal use (e.g., here) and be the only ones who can understand them.


  3. Fernando Santisteban says:

    That is the right qualification for Quipus of Inka and pre-Inka civilization, it is Data Physical Visualization.