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The Inca tupu and the Shipibo Indian. A discussion of the controversial tupu of Incaic Peru and an attempt to define it - article ; n°2 ; vol.56, pg 449-458


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Journal de la Société des Américanistes - Année 1967 - Volume 56 - Numéro 2 - Pages 449-458
10 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Published 01 January 1967
Reads 178
Language English


Robert L. Farrier
The Inca tupu and the Shipibo Indian. A discussion of the
controversial tupu of Incaic Peru and an attempt to define it
In: Journal de la Société des Américanistes. Tome 56 n°2, 1967. pp. 449-458.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Farrier Robert L. The Inca tupu and the Shipibo Indian. A discussion of the controversial tupu of Incaic Peru and an attempt to
define it. In: Journal de la Société des Américanistes. Tome 56 n°2, 1967. pp. 449-458.
doi : 10.3406/jsa.1967.2304
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/jsa_0037-9174_1967_num_56_2_2304THE INCA TUPU
by Robert L. FARRIER
Rowe : « Information in Inca units of measurement is relatively abundant, but it is so
scattered, and unsustematized, as to give the impression that the Inca had no very precise
standards. Actually Inca engineering work almost required a system of measurement as
exact as that in use in the 16№. century Europe. (Handbook of the South American In
dian, vol. 2, page 232).
« ...a study of the modern uses of the topo in Andean countries, is much to be desi
red... » (Ibid., page 233.)
To-day with rocket-rides-to-the-moon nearly upon us, we may feel justly
proud of the precise measuring system that makes such daily comforts pos
And yet if our history, and most of our learning were suddenly oblit
erated by an invading force of ignorant soldiers from another world — - as
was the Inca culture — I wonder what a later investigator might think of
our measurements, when he constantly encountered such deviations as there
are in the quart (three of them, no less) — and three different bushels and
boxes, and barrels, and tons, — all of which vary in the most indecent man- ■
ner1. This sort of thing goes on-and-on, but at best, it only partly prepares
us for what we may expect when we try to place a definite value on an
Inca measure that has been handed down to us through uncertain sources,
and expressed in old Spanish terms that are in themselves uncertain.
Rowe says : « Агза was measured by the topo... » (Here I list my own findings
along with those of Piowe2 :
1. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Standards.
1 U.S. quart (dry) contains 67.2 cu. in.
1 U.S. quart (liquid) » 57.75 » »
1 British » 80.69 » »
1 bushel (interstate Commerce) 2250 12
1 ■>, (Court Customs Appeals) 2747.715
1 >, British 2219.2934
1 Barrel (not for cranberries) » 7056 » »
1 » (for cranberries^ » 5X26 ,, »
1. .12 sh. ton ■-■■ 1.016 M T 1 long ton ■-= 2722.22 lbs troy ^ 2240 lbs av =
1 short ton = 2430.56 , « =- 2000 „ „ ^ 89286 L. ton --^ .90718 M T
1 metric ton =-■ 2679.23 » - 2204.6 » » = .98421 L. ton = 1.1023 S T
1 basket may be 1 /2 pint, 1 pint, 1 quart, or any multiple of a quart.
A ream of paper may be either 480 sheets, or 500 sheets.
And a horse is measured in hands, and weighed in stones !
2. The tupu is often expressed in paces (or posas which may be taken as single steps,
or as two steps, of more or less uncertain length. Fot- example Rowe says :
« Measures of travp.linf/ distance were based on the pace (thatki) which is the most
convenient unit for travelers on foot. A larger unit called the topo was used along the Inca
roads, some of which had a mile-stone at every topo. The topo wan approximately
equal to 1 1/2 Spanish leagues, or about 4 1/2 miles... » (Cites : Cieza, Polo, Acosta,
Calancha, and Bertonio) « ...Morûa says that a topo contained 6000 paces. If both of
these equivalents are correct, the Inca pace would have been about 4 feet, counted from
the time one foot was put down until the same foot touched the ground again. That is
two steps, which is a comfortable walking pace for a man of medium height. » Here I.
interrupt Rowe's excellent article for what might seem to be a niggling criticism, prompt
ed no doubt by memories of screamingly tired leg muscles.
According to my arithmetic. Rowe's 1-foot pace would mean a 24inch step, which
is a rather mincing step for anyone ; and I, who have followed the mountain indián,
and his fly-footed llama train for hour-after-weary-hour up the sides of near vertical
cliffs, and across rugged, desolate country, where I dared not be left behind, can tes
tify that they do not mince, at least they didn't when 1 was following them.
What then can be wrong with the calculations ? I can only suggest this :
It seems that Rowe has used the common value of 3 miles to the league ; but I
have been informed that the OLD Spanish league ran 17 1 /2 leagues to the degree.
This would have made the league about 4 miles long instead of 3 ; and his topo would
have been 6 miles long instead of 4 1 /2, making the resulting step about 30 inches THE INCA TUPU AND THE SHIPIBO INDIAN 451
Writer Measurement (which I have reduced to acres as a standard)
Gobo quoted by Rowe as 50x25 fathoms equaling 0.8 acres
Garcilaso » » » » 11 /2 f anegas » 2.4
» » » Mishkin 1 fanega » 1.59
Means 60 x 50 paces (pasos ?) 1.8 »
Mishkin 44 x 88 yards 0.8
Sirivichi 3872 varas2 » 0.67
Markham 50 x 60 paces (pasos ?) 1.8
Prescott the land required to plant 11/2 hwt corn 5 ?
Ariquipa « Somewhat larger than the Guzco topo (id.) »
Guzco Given as « mas-o-menos 40 x 80 M2 » 1.0?
The foregoing values given to the tupu represent estimates given by some of the au
thorities both old and new. But varied as they are, I wish to point out that the com
plexity does not stop here.
It is common in the sierra back-country to figure the value of the tupu in fanegas
of which there are many — and each man, of course, has the only correct, and true
fanega.3 The variations extend even to one which I have found in the impeccable — well,
almost impeccable Zelàzquez who says :
«FANEGA (fah /NAY /gah) : Fanega de tierra ; extent of arable land, generally
of four hundred fathoms square ; and of pasture-land, five hundred. »4
Of course this last definition puts the value of the tupu a very long way from any
of the previously given calculations, since 400 fathoms square would give the fanega
a value of slightly less than 135 acres ; while 500 make it equi-
instead of 24. And since the 30 inch step is practically a world standard for military
use, the figures seem to tally.
(The Royal Geographic Society considers the pace as one step of 30 inches saying :
« Pacing at 30 inches per pace, at 120 paces per minute equals 300 ft. per minute,
or 3.41 statute miles per hour. »)
3. Value of the Fanega (Data from Bureau of Standards U.S.)
Fanega value (dry) Country
1.5745 Bu Ecuador, Salvador
2 . 75268 » Chili
1.57744 » Mexico, Guatemala
1 . 57501 » Spain
3.334 » Venezuela
3.888 Uruguay
7.776 » Fanega double „
The fanega may also be :
12 celemines, or 1 /12 cahdez, or 1 /60 caballeria, or 576 estadales, or 64 areas.
It also may be the amount of land necessary to plant 1 cwt. of maize. (Which by
the way, is the British hundred weight or 112 pounds, not 100 pounds.)
4. Zelàzquez, New Pronouncing Dictionary Spanish-English, p. 315. )
valent to about 207 acres and the value of the tupu would vary accordingly. For example,
11/2 fanegas would be equivalent to either 202 acres, or 310 acres depending on whe
ther it was a tupu of arable land, or a tupu of pasture !
One might feel by this time that error is the norm, where the tupu
is concerned, and it was at about this stage that I gave up, and thought
no more about it for a while, until I discovered a small, but significant clue
concerning the tupu ; not in the museums of Lima ; not in the almost frve-
mile-high sierra ; and not in any of my various books, but in the Amazon
jungle, of all places ; and the clue came from an old Shipibo fisherman, of
all people.
It had been one of those langorous, lazy days when even time hung suspended, and
nothing seemed to matter very much. I watched my old Shipibo friend as he bent,
and straightened, and sharpened the tines of a small fish spear ; sighting down its
flawlessly smooth reed shaft, and feeling the sharp points critically with his fingers.
At last they seemed to conform to the standard of perfection he required, and picking
up a ball of incredibly strong, hand-twisted twine, he measured off a fathom of it,
and began neatly to bind the spear shaft.
Idly I asked him for the Shipibo word « to measure »"\
Tuponti, he said without looking up.
« That's curious », I thought, « He sounded just as if he were going to
say tupu ».
5. The following Shipibo, Quechua, and English measures are compared :
I nca English Shipibo name Translation
ro—ka—na (?) Finger width metoti tuponti finger— to— measure
yu-ku Thumb /to /forefinger meken hand-to-measure
ka-pa (Span ?) ? ?
kho-kok Cubit masko tuponti « short >.-to-measure
rik-ra Fathom paňan arms-to-measure
that-ki (2-step pace) esh~ka-ti tuponti pace-to-measure
(Note : I believe the word kho-kok to represent the Spanish « palmo » but I am
by no means certain.)
In connection with the above words, I give you the following measures :
Measurement of Rome Royal Geographic Society
5" to 6" thumb-forefinger H" yu-ku thumb to forefinger
18" 17" « cubit » « cubit » kho-kok
H" 9" ka-pa span, or ■< palmo ? span 64" rik—ra « fathom », ч brazo »
sik-ya 1 /2 fathom
30" that-ki pace 4 feet pace THE INGA TUPU AND THE SHIPIBO INDIAN 453
Then I asked him for the Shipibo word : « fathom », and he gave me :
ponan tuponti. Again it sounded as if he were about to say : lupu.
I was interested so I asked him Cor all the units of measurement I could
think of ; and each time, he seemed about to say : tupu.
Finally, in answer to much questioning, the old man told me that the
Inca had given the Shipibos their system of measurement as well as their
system of enumeration, « and everything else good that we have ! » he added
The next part of his story I already knew ; not about the measurements, of course,
but about the Shipibo creator-god Atahualpa, whose blazing eyes — believed by many
ignorant white-men to be only two stars called Vega and Altair — gazed lovingly
down on the jungle world which he had created for the Shipibo people. And I knew
also that it was this same Atahualpa who taught the men all the arts that
were proper for a man to know ; while his good wife Mama Ocllo had done the same
for the Shipibo women.
(Please note that Atahualpa is only one of at least five Inca-crestor-gods in Shipibo
lore, and the fact that Mama Ocllo's association with him is scandalous, and also ana
chronistic, worries them not at all.)
As we talked, the thought of the tupu was haunting me again, and I
wondered if there could be any relation between the tupu and the tuponti.
So I asked the old man if the Shipibo had any word : « to measure » without
any qualifying words.
Again he said : tuponti, and for a long moment he stood looking at me,
the way so many of the jungle Indians do when you ask something that
requires some deep thought. Then he began to explain in a halting, gro
ping sort of way.
He said that when the amount is understood between both parties the word
tuponti may be used to represent ANY quantity. For example : to a Shi
pibo man, a tuponti of fish line is a « brazo » (or fathom), while to a Shi
pibo woman, a of cloth is a Spanish meter ; and if no other quant
ities are mentioned in the transaction, the amounts given above would
be expected. But he made it very clear that the word tuponti by itself means :
« to measure » and it means nothing else. Then he added, just to be sure that
I understood : « You always have to measure something. »
I began to see that what lie was telling me was important ; then suddenly
I remembered that in many parts oř the sierra, the Quechua women use
the word tupu in connection with a meter of cloth, and the enigma of the
tupu began to have meaning. Everything my old friend had said about the
tuponti applied to the tupu as well. The Shipibo word tuponti had no arith
metical limitations, and neither did the Quechua word tupu. And yet, like
so many others, I had spent a great deal of time trying to give it one ! —
trying to attach a precise number value to a transitive verb. 454 SOCIÉTÉ DES AMÉRIGANISTES
When I got back to Pucallpa, I dusted off all my notes on the tupu and
I went to work ; but this time I knew what I was looking for, and I wasn't
long in finding it. As a matter of fact it had been right under my nose ever
since I had set myself the task of finding out : : « How much is a tupu. »
When I had first arrived in Peru I had made the mistake of trying to
find out what everybody said about the tupu, and then trying to make
it agree with what I thought they should have said about it. Now, howev
er, I was only interested in finding out what the Inca had said about it,
and that was easy, because all the chroniclers had written it down for me ;
and those who came later had copied what the chroniclers had written :
Cobo had stated it, and Garcilaso, and Acosta, and Sarmiento, and Cieza,
and all the rest of them, but after they had recorded the Inca' s words about
the tupu, they hadn't been content to leave it at that. — They felt that they
should interpret the tupu in strict numerical terms !
Later came Prescott, and in his pages he also told me what the Inca
had said about the tupu ; but he too was unable to resist telling me in
terms of : « how much. » Then followed Markham, and Means, and Mish-
kin. They also told me what the Inca had said, and they quoted the chro
niclers with mathematical precision ; as did Rowe, and Siriviche, all of them
better trained, and better suited to their work than I. And yet I. had a
great advantage, for not one among them had had the opportunity of di
scussing the tupu with a wise old Shipibo Indian ! — and because of this,
each of them had followed the logical path that had been marked out for
them to follow ; and each had inherited the error from those who had gone
before : that of writing down figures to represent what they thought the
tupu shoud have been.
But also each of them had told me that the Inca ordered to be alloted
to every newly married couple : one tupu of la,nd ; and that he had re
quired an additional tupu to be given them for each boy-child ; and one
half tupu for each girl-child. And elsewhere in their writings each writer
mentioned that each family must have a sufficiency of everything, and that
none should suffer privation in any form ; on that the administrating official
was held strictly accountable to the Inca, even to the point of death ! And
the same writers told me that some families were weavers, some were pot
ters, and some were dyers, while others were fishermen, farmers, miners, etc.
That some of them were so highly specialized in their work that they
might spend their entire lives dyeing particularly bright red, or yellow, or
blue, or green threads for the surrounding country ; and that there were
many farmers who produced only one special grain, maize for instance,
and they grew nothing else ; and there were irrigation experts who did no
farming at all, but were concerned with the design and the maintainance
of such systems.
All of this I have had to mention in order to bring out a special point,
which will be easy to understand by anyone who will look over the very INCA TUPU AND THE SHIPIBO INDIAN 455 THE
partial list of occupations given above, and who will notice the extreme
diversity in the needs of those people, as far as land was concerned.
The always practical Inca would hardly have given a weaver as much land
as would have been required by a herdsman ; and a potter wouldn't have requi
red as much as would have been necessary for a grower of maize ; and it might
be imagined that the irrigation expert, who was clothed, and fed, and lodged by
the state, could have gotten along without any land at all. A fisherman might
have needed a very small vegetable plot to help feed his family ; while a
herb doctor would not have required much ground to raise all the medicinal
plants he might care to cultivate. Thus no set rule governing the exact
value of the tupu can come from the varied occupational requirements of
the Inca's subjects.
What about climate ? It has been well, and very often said, that in
Peru a person may travel from the tropics to the north pole in a jour
ney of a few kilometers. But I can add, even this does not adequately express
the situation : I know several rancheros — and not big land owners either —
who have both the tropics and the polar regions on any one of their seve
ral ranches, and this is because much of their land clings to almost verti
cal sides of mountains which could easily look down on Europe's highest
mountains by a matter of several kilometers ; thus it may be seen that the
same ranch may have valley land suitable for bananas, while another por
tion high-up may be too cold to grow potatoes (perhaps perpetual snow-
fields) while all the other climates may be tucked in between. Often I have
sat on a warm sun-flooded terrace while a Quechua indián scampered up
the « hill » — the farm's natural refrigerator — to bring back beer so cold
that it set my teeth on edge. No. Climate doesn't help us set the tupu's va
lue either6.
Water supply ? That's even worse. The difference between the arid coas
tal deserts of Peru and the water-logged « ceja-de-la-montaňa » could
hardly be more distinct and irrigation runs the gamut from relatively easy
to impossible.
Fertility then ? Here we do have a picture of diversity. There are shif
ting, marching sand-dunes, crescent-shaped and as large as small moun-
6. Peru is often called a « land of contrasts », and it very truly is. Its temperat
ure, its humidity, altitudes, etc., represent the extremes. As an illustration let me
point out the highest peak in the
Alps Pyrenees Caucasus
Mont Blanc : 15 781 ft Maladeta : 11 168 ft Elbrus : 18 481 ft
Yet it is well known that the last word has not yet come in from the Andes chain,
but I have a list of fifty presumably highest Andean peaks ; the lowest of which reaches
20,013 ft ; and other writers have noted the awsome fact that such great European
peaks as Vesuvius could be lost in some of the Andean valleys ! (Humboldt, Vues des
Cordillères, p. 9). 456 SOCIÉTÉ DES AMÉRICANISTES
tains, but unable to support a single sprig of grass. There are beautiful,
rich alluvial valleys. There is soft, sandy loam, rocky barrens, hard clay
soil, and rolling plains of lush waving grass higher than your head. On a
small ten acres the soil may change every few yards, and in some sections
the mountain indián must seek out pitifully small handfuls of dirt in many
locations, just to produce enough food for his family. There is nothing
standard about the fertility of the Peruvian soil either, certainly
that will help to establish a numerical value for the tupu.
How then did the Inca arrive at the amount of land to be represented
by the tupu ? What standard value did he use considering the varied work
ing conditions ? Availability of water ? Extremes of soil fertility ? How
indeed ? And this is just the point toward which I have been steering. The
Inca didn't.
I believe that what the Inca said, and what he meant when he refered
to the tupu, was just what we say, and mean, when we use the words : « Quant
ity sufficient » in relation to any recipe. And I believe that when he told
a minor official to give a certain man a tupu of land, he was saying in effect :
« Give to this man his measure, or his portion of land, and let it be a
quantity sufficient for his needs, and let it be given according to his abili
ties to work it properly, that he may produce for his own needs, and for
those less fortunate than he ; that he may contribute to the sovereign state ;
to his God the Sun ; and to his King the Inca. And look you well, that he
suffers no injustice in this allotment, for an injustice to him is an injustice
to the entire State, and to the Sun, and to your King ! »
This, I believe, is very close to what he meant when he used the word
tupu, and indeed this seems to be the only logical usage to which the
may be put. I believe the word tupu meant to the Inca, precisely what tu-
ponti means to the jungle indián ; and what tupu means to the mountain
indián of to-day : simply a measure, a portion, and it could have meant no
thing else. To have given a definite quantity of land to all people would
have been unjust, and it would have slowed-down-production, a thing the
Inca would never do. Aside from any real sympathy he may have had for
his subjects, he knew that unnecessary discomfort in any way meant they
would produce less, less in revenue to the State (and that of course meant
less to the Inca).
One last remark, however, is that where a chronicler mentioned a defi
nite amount of land as the value of the tupu, he may have been quite cor
rect in stating the quantity given under a certain condition ; as well as to
a certain individual. In various parts of Peru I have seen what were presu
med to have been sample tupus, which were supposed to have been laid out
by Inca officials and bordered by heavy rocks, long before the advent of
the Spaniard. I am inclined to believe, however, that these sample plots
were simply « examples » and not intended for precise quantities. It is my
belief that in each case, such plots were adjusted to the needs of the indi- THE INGA TUPU AND THE SHIPIBO INDIAN 457
vidual, and that the quantity of land worked by a man varied throughout his
life. Many earlier writers hint at this, and a study of the Inca organization
would seem to have required it.
The general efficiency of the Inca's benevolent laws seems to have been
directed at the fostering of a prosperous state, and I believe that the Inca
worked in the same way that a modern, enlightened business official works
when he tries to better the conditions of his workers ; all the while feeling
a two fold satisfaction : the humanitarian side, and the assurance that his
company may prosper the more if his workers are happy.
Certainly a fixed quantity of land to represent the value of the tupu would
have worked against this end, since it would have been tantamount to g
iving one man more than another.
Please note that I make no claim to being a Quechua scholar. This part of this
present work has been arrived at through much labor, and by the assiduous use of
Sergio GrigoriefFs Quechua paradigmas, or verb scales. I believe the work to be cor
rect, but it has not been checked by any competent authority, and the conjugation
is far from complete.
While I know this verb to be in common use by the mountain Quechua indians,
I suggest that if this conjugation is to be used for anything more than to prove my
point, I shall be glad to redd the work, having each step checked by by one of se
veral friends who are now working in the Lima museums, and who have used the Que
chua language from infancy.
Quechua is so complex a language that some of it can only be approximated in
translation, or in written representation. For this reason I have taken some personal
liberties (orthographic) representing a sound as chi where some writers use tjih for the
same sound. As has been repeatedly stated, the indián sounds are extremely difficult
to represent on the typewriter, and as Means has pointed out, the original sounds have
probably been lost forever anyway.
The verb tupu (measure)7
Infinitive tupu (ц) (to measure)
tupuh (measurer)
tupuspa (measuring)
tupuska (measured)
7. Because Quechua sometimes has as many as twelve degrees of comparison, the
complete conjugation of a verb may require ten, to twenty pages, of work. I have
completed seven pages of this verb, but I shall not burden you with it unless you
request it.
Please note that although many of the following writers use the word topo ; I bow
to the authority of such Quechua experts as Sergio Grigoreff, and Miguel Mossi (Que
chua Paradigmas, Gramática del Idioma Quechua, etc.), in accepting the pronunciation
of the word as tupu.