The Ancient Art of Data Science

By April 4, 2019Cool Analysis

We think of data science as a modern discipline that came into prominence with the rise of the information age. The term ‘data science’ only goes back to the 1960s – but the practice of collecting information from which you can understand, interpret, and extrapolate real-world phenomena is as old as human societies. The Ancient Egyptians stored administrative data on papyrus; the Normans used the Doomsday book for census taking and tax purposes. But less commonly know is the Incan quipu.

An administrative quipu from 1400-1532. Photo: ©Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum

Imagine holding a necklace from which hangs a series of colorful, knotted strands. But it’s not for decoration – what you are holding is a database. In the right hands, it could tell you about the lives of the people who lived in the Incan Empire. They could record the census, taxes obligations, payments, dates of rituals- all stored in a 3-D system. More importantly, a series of cotton strings which could be wrapped up was much easier to transport across a far-flung mountainous empire than sheets of delicate paper.

The quipus (sometimes spelled khipu) are known as the talking knots. Made from cotton or other fibers, these color-coded strings are looped into knots, encoding data on a ‘place-value system.’ The main cord would branch off into sub-cords. The kind of knots would represent a specific decimal value, meaning that any number could be represented.

Want to learn to read knots? Here’s a video.

Reading quipus was a specialized position with the knowledge passed down through generations. That specialized knowledge was lost with the invasion and subjugation by the Spanish Empire, who squashed many cultural practices. But there are still plenty of hard-working scientists, historians, artists, and archeologists dedicated to finding and preserving these ancient databases.

Cecilia_Vicuna quipu installation

Image of Cecilia Vicuña’s fascinating installation Quipu desaparecido (Disappeared Quipu). ©Brooklyn Museum, 2018

What can we learn from quipus?

  • At the Room40 Group, we believe that data does not equal information. It’s only in the right hands that the quipus began to ‘talk’ and tell us about the immense data they contained.
  • Visualizing and analyzing data can be an art as much as a science. This a great example of a world of data represented not just clearly, but beautifully.
  • Data can be represented by more than just pie charts. When you expand your perception of how data can be tracked and visualized, you open your mind to innovation.