Khipus: Tied Up in Knots

The Inka were a very sophisticated culture located in what we now call South America. Their empire went from modern day Ecuador and Peru south to Chile, and also included parts of Colombia, Bolivia and Argentina. Until recent times, archeologists thought that they did not have a writing system. However, new research has revealed the subtle complexity of their system of knotted strings called khipu in Quechua, the Inka language, and quipu in Spanish. Runners would take the light and easily portable khipu to convey messages along the thousands of kilometers (5500 K long) of the empire to the capital in Cusco.

Inka Empire Roads Image: Manco Capac

After the Spanish invasion, the Inka knot makers would read a khipu to a Spanish scribe, who would record the the census information on paper in the numbers and letters we are accustomed to seeing. The Spanish considered khipu as valid evidence for a trial. Only a select few Inkas knew how to read the knots called khipukamayuqs (knot makers/organizers).

Evidence of the Continued Importance of Khipus

  1. The Spanish allowed quipus as court evidence
  2. The Spanish called quipus archives and books
  3. The Spanish were worried about the information power of quipus and had most burned
  4. Catholic priests used quipu boards at parishes for attendance and to keep track of donations/work
  5. Quipus were used to keep records in Peru until early 1900s.
Inka Quipu from the Lima Larco Museum Photo: Claus Ableiter

The majority of the surviving khipu, about 1400 total, are administrative khipus that kept track of numbers like population, taxes, and tributes. The researchers compare them to an abacus or to an Excel spreadsheet. Knots represent base-10 numbers similar to an abacus. The numerals are tied by the corresponding numbers of knots in horizontal levels of 0, 10, 100, 1000 and 10,000s, low to high on the string. This was rediscovered by mathematician Leland Locke in 1923 after observing this information source in a US museum.

Comparison of hand written census documents with a surviving khipu has led to modern discoveries. They may contain additional information that we are only beginning to learn about. A summary of key research:

Carrie Brezine was instrumental in setting up the Harvard Khipu Database, during her studies in the Anthropology Department in the early 2000s. She noticed a series of knots on the top of a khipu known to be from Puruchuco, Peru. Brezine used Mathematica software to analyze the database and found several examples of khipus with the identical pattern at the beginning of the strings. She and her advisor published a paper about this exciting result, finding ancient symbols representing a city name. This is a fabulous start, considering that the successful translation of both Egyptian hieroglyphs and Maya glyphs began with place names.

Dr. Sabine Hyland has shown social status is reflected in the census. An individual’s status is marked with the attachment knot of the vertical cord to the horizontal one, either recto or verso, facing toward the viewer or away. This was confirmed by researcher Manny Medrano when he compared the Spanish census documents with the corresponding Inka notation. He is completely bilingual in Spanish and English, so reading Spanish was not a difficult a task for him. For the social categories, the recto and verso ties were an exact match. He found the paper and knots weren’t identical in census information, but very close within 2 or 4 of the quantity noted in the knots.

Narrative khipus are an exciting development in the understanding of these communication devices. Dr. Hyland was honored by the leaders of Collata, Peru, winning their trust and getting allowed to see two letter khipus written by leaders during the battles of the 18th century when the villages rebelled against the Spanish. The heirloom was kept secret from outsiders for two centuries. The elders of the village explained that the fibers were from Andean animals; vicuña, alpaca, llama, guanaco, deer, and viscacha (a rodent). The type of fiber has a meaning too, Dr. Hyland was told by the village leaders. These fibers held dye better than cotton. Dr. Hyland realized that color can express letters. On the narrative khipu she’s saw how the two lineages of the village of Collata are spelled out using parts of the Quechua words for the name of the colors. That is fabulous progress.

It’s knot easy, but researchers are finding clues to decipher the possibility of a khipu alphabet.

Thank you to my friend CDL for her tip on this topic. ¡Olé! –Rebecca

Rebecca Cuningham

17 thoughts on “Khipus: Tied Up in Knots

    1. Dr. Linda Schele was central in the deciphering the Maya writing system. She was a professor at UT Austin. She was also an artist who drew the glyphs. For twenty years she organized the Maya Meetings where people could learn about the Maya and help translate texts.

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