The Unprecedented Discovery of the Puruchuco Khipus

Learn about the first khipus found in archaeological context in the mid-1960s.

MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Inca Story, Peru (1946) by Frank ScherschelLIFE Photo Collection

An unprecedented discovery

In the mid-1960s, khipus came under the radar of archeology, when Dr. Arturo Jiménez Borja discovered an intact mausoleum with three funerary bundles from the Inca period in the site of Puruchuco, located in the Rimac Valley.

Khipu found in Puruchuco in the Rímac Valley Museo de Sitio Arturo Jiménez Borja-Puruchuco. Ministerio de Cultura del Perú (1400/1532)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

22 Khipus, 1 Pot

One of the offerings, a pot containing a set of twenty-two khipus, was especially revealing, since this constituted a one of a kind discovery. Prior to that, khipus always appeared scattered in collections and museums all over the world, giving scarce references to their origin and no information about their original context.

Tupac Inca Yupanqui and a Quipucamayoc (completed in 1616) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Finally, archeologists and historians were presented with a properly controlled environment that opened theg doors to many possibilities to analyze these textiles and their elusive coding.

Khipu found in Puruchuco in the Rímac Valley Museo de Sitio Arturo Jiménez Borja-Puruchuco. Ministerio de Cultura del Perú (1400/1532)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Khipu structure = Information recorded?

Based on this discovery, Anthropologist and khipu expert, Dr. Gary Urton suggests that it is important to consider the relation between the structure of khipus and the structure of the information recorded in them. 

Khipu S and Z directionsMALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Urton posits that khipus organize and convey meanings in binary arrangements resulting from their physical features or structure defined by the textile (for instance, twisting the threads in the form of an “S” or “Z” and the direction of the knots; colors and series of threads).

KhipucamayoqMALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

This gives a logical sense to the work of the khipukamayuqs (khipu-keeper). These specialists in handling khipus were the only ones familiar with these codes, trained in differentiating and recording “data”. 

Pair of Keros with Carved Feline Handles Pair of Keros with Carved Feline Handles (17th–18th century)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

For the Incas or for the pre-Hispanic Andean people in general, concepts like duality, tripartition and quatripartition had a deep meaning and contributed to organize and give a logical sense to the everyday life. In this context, we must consider that the records in khipus must have been influenced by this fact.  

Inca administrationMALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

This only makes sense and has an order when taking into account the social, political and economic structure of the imperial organization. 

Khipu rolled found in Huaquerones-Puruchuco in the Rímac Valley (1400/1532) by Inca CultureMALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

In this way, code standardization (for instance, the sensible combination of threads, colors and torsion of the khipus) and the logic behind the recording, having in mind the Andean ideology (i.e. duality, tripartition and quatripartition), contributed to successfully reunite the different cultural backgrounds and languages from such a socially diverse organization like the Tawantinsuyo.

This process proved to be vital to make the administration of the Empire more efficient.  

Khipu rolled found in Huaquerones-Puruchuco in the Rímac Valley Museo de Sitio Arturo Jiménez Borja-Puruchuco. Ministerio de Cultura del Perú (1400/1532)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

These khipus have three groups of cords each and an introductory segment of thirteen cords at the beginning of the khipu. These segments differentiate from the other groups in terms of color, number pattern and spacing. 

Khipu rolled found in Huaquerones-Puruchuco in the Rímac Valley Museo de Sitio Arturo Jiménez Borja-Puruchuco. Ministerio de Cultura del Perú (1400/1532)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

We believe that these are not part of the arithmetic relation, but a simple tag or identifier that may give information about the origin of the khipu as “belonging or coming from” Puruchuco. 

Khipu rolled found in Huaquerones-Puruchuco in the Rímac Valley Museo de Sitio Arturo Jiménez Borja-Puruchuco. Ministerio de Cultura del Perú (1400/1532)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Amidst the different khipus from different areas, the introductory segments of thirteen cords would be recognized as a place identifier for “Puruchuco”.

Khipu rolled found in Huaquerones-Puruchuco in the Rímac Valley Museo de Sitio Arturo Jiménez Borja-Puruchuco. Ministerio de Cultura del Perú (1400/1532)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Whether the information encoded into the khipus of Puruchuco is a summary or a partition, it constitutes direct material evidence that supports the ethnographic accounts of the complex hierarchy in the Inca bureaucracy. 

Khipu rolled found in Huaquerones-Puruchuco in the Rímac Valley Museo de Sitio Arturo Jiménez Borja-Puruchuco. Ministerio de Cultura del Perú (1400/1532)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

This analysis clarifies that not all khipus were individual documents: not only the information was duplicated, it could have been summed or organized in various ways for different recipients.

Khipu rolled found in Huaquerones-Puruchuco in the Rímac Valley Museo de Sitio Arturo Jiménez Borja-Puruchuco. Ministerio de Cultura del Perú (1400/1532)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Credits: Story

[Carrie Brezine and Luis Felipe Villacorta]

Credits: All media
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