What Do We Know About Khipus?

University of St. Andrews Researcher Manny Medrano answers

By Google Arts & Culture

Khipu, UNMSM Colección Radicati de Quipus, Fundación Temple Radicati - UNMSM (1400/1532)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Manny Medrano - Q1

1. What is a khipu? What does the word "khipu" mean?

The word “khipu” means “knot” in Quechua, referring to the Andean knotted-cord devices that were used, beginning from prehispanic times, to record numerical and narrative information.

Map America SouthLIFE Photo Collection

Manny Medrano - Q2

2. Where were khipus used?

The use of khipus in the majority, if not throughout the entire Andean region, is well-documented. However, their geographic reach may have varied over time. It is thought that khipus reached their apex as an administrative technology in the Inca Empire. 

At their height, the Inca territories extended more than 4,000 kilometers, from modern Ecuador and Colombia to Bolivia and central Chile. Some of the best-known examples of khipu use in the centuries following the Spanish conquest come from the shores of Lake Titicaca,  from the Department of Cuzco, and from the central Peruvian highlands, although some modern khipus have been documented in other areas.

Warrior (650 - 900) by WariThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Manny Medrano - Q3

3. Who used khipus? For how long were khipus used?

Archaeological and ethnographic research have demonstrated that to speak of the era of active khipu use is really to describe a period of at least 1,000 years, between 900–1950 CE. As an object popularly associated with the Inca Empire, it may come as a surprise that the khipu was not an invention of the Incas themselves.

Khipu excavated from Corral Redondo site in Arequipa Khipu excavated from Corral Redondo site in Arequipa by Wari-Inca CultureMALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

The first recognized khipus come from Wari, a Middle Horizon civilization. Later, the Incas adopted and modified the khipu system for their own administrative ends. Andean communities continued using khipus during the colonial and republican periods, in a wide range of economic, legal, and ecclesiastical contexts.

Manny Medrano studying a museum khipu display

Manny Medrano - Q4

4. Are khipus writing?

Answering this question depends on our definition of writing. There is much in common between khipus and graphical writing (an example of the latter being information recorded with paper and ink)— perhaps most prominently the transmission of meaning by way of collections of signs. 

Nevertheless, the level of conventionality in khipus is an ongoing debate. At a minimum, khipus constitute a tactile and three-dimensional recording system.

What do khipus look like? How many varieties of khipus are there?

5. What do khipus look like? How many varieties are there?

There is much variation among the surviving khipus. However, most khipus have a thick, horizontal primary cord from which hang some number (between one and over a thousand) of thinner pendant cords. Most pendant cords have knots tied on them, which usually signify numbers  in a base-10 system. In this replica, for example, the number 28 is recorded on this cord by way of two simple knots at the level of the tens’ place, as well as a long knot of eight turns in the ones’ place. 

What do khipus look like? How many varieties of khipus are there?

Pendants sometimes have strings attached to them called subsidiary cords, which can themselves have their own sub-subsidiaries. There is also a small number of khipus that do not fit this numerical model. Some researchers refer to these as “narrative” khipus, suggesting that they record largely nonnumerical information.

Decimal system on a numerical, Inca-style khipu fragment

Manny Medrano - Q6

6. What do we know about how khipus recorded information?

Since the early 20th century, khipu researchers have attempted to unearth the details of how the system worked, drawing from various disciplines—archaeology, anthropology, history, and linguistics being just a few examples. The decimal system represented by the knots on  numerical, Inka-style khipus was deciphered about 100 years ago. 

Khipu tie direction close upMALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Since then, further research has revealed other elements of khipus that facilitated the recording of information. Among these are the twist of the strings, which are made of cotton, camelid, or other fibers; the color of the cords; the directionality of the knots; and, occasionally, the physical inclusion of other objects in the strings like quinoa, feathers, chuño [freeze-dried potatoes], and llama ear tips.

Manny Medrano studying a museum khipu display

The combination of these and other elements represented both numerical and nonnumerical information. Khipu recordkeepers would have been able to “read” the khipu by passing their hands over the cords, informed by its spatial and tactile relationships, in a way that we do not yet fully understand.

II, Traditional women’s costume, district of Tinta, province of Canchis, Cusco, Peru 2010 (Apr-13) by Mario TestinoMATE — Museo Mario Testino

Manny Medrano - Q7

7. Are khipus still used today in the Andes?

Some communities in Peru have maintained their use of khipus in ritual and administrative contexts, considering them a form of ancestral patrimony. The tradition of funerary khipus also continues in other communities, in which deceased members are buried with a khipu.   

Quipu (khipu): fragment with two main cords, as well as top, subsidiary and tertiary cords (1400–1570)Dallas Museum of Art

Regarding numerical khipus, it is possible that these survive in functional form in some agropastoral contexts, although less is known about potential modern examples.

Khipus. Our History in Knots Exhibition (2020)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Manny Medrano - Q8

8. How many ancient khipus still exist today as artifacts?

Today, thanks to several new cataloging projects, we know of the existence of almost 1,400 khipus. These can be found in the public and private collections of more than 140 institutions in the Americas and Europe, from California in the west to Israel in the east, and from Argentina in the south to Sweden in the north.

8. Where are they located?

The world’s largest collection of khipus, with several hundred examples, is found in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, Germany. The second largest collection is in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú.

Double Khipu found inside of a basket covered with chili peppers in Inkawasi, Cañete Double Khipu found inside of a basket covered with chili peppers in Inkawasi, Cañete by Inca CultureMALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Manny Medrano - Q9

9. Where can I learn more about khipus?

Many resources can be found online, including the foundational works of researchers like Carlos Radicati di Primeglio, L. Leland Locke, Hugo Pereyra Sánchez, and Marcia and Robert Ascher. Several projects have aimed to catalog the khipus in museums and private collections; the resulting data are in some cases available for free download.

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Manny Medrano  (research website)

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