History of Khipus and Empires Undeciphered

Anthropologist Sabine Hyland examines Khipus throughout history

By Google Arts & Culture

Sabine Hyland

Khipu, UNMSM Khipu, UNMSM by Wari CultureMALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Khipus: Recording Devices

Khipus have served as recording devices in the Andes for over a millennium, from the time of the Wari Empire (600 – 1100 CE) to the 20th century.  Fashioned from strings made of cotton, animal fibres, maguey, or other plants, khipus have varied in form and purpose throughout  their 1000+ year history. 

Wari Khipu close upMALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Yet to be Deciphered

While we understand many aspects of how khipus encoded information, there remains much that is still unknown. The full decipherment of khipu texts continues to elude researchers. 

Standing Dignitary (c. A.D. 600–1000) by PrecolumbianKimbell Art Museum

The Wari Empire

The first khipus were made during the Wari Empire. This powerful Andean state organized people and labour over a large region, as shown, for example, by its extensive and well-maintained road system, complex urban architecture, and elaborate tombs for royal elites. 

Loop-and-branch type khipu found at El Castillo, Huarmey Loop-and-branch type khipu found at El Castillo, Huarmey by Wari CultureMALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Scholars believe that Wari administrators used khipus to help run the empire.  One of the most distinctive features of Wari khipus is that some of the cords on each khipu were wrapped with brightly coloured yarns, resulting in strings with striking designs.

Many Wari khipus consist of wrapped and knotted pendant cords attached to a loop.

Khipu excavated from Corral Redondo site in Arequipa Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú. Ministerio de Cultura del Perú (600/1532)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Others have a horizontal top cord from which hang pendants wrapped in vibrant colours. Wari khipus have simple overhand knots organised in a base 10 system. 

By Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection

The Incan Empire

Khipu use reached its height during the Inca's imperial phase (c. 1400-1532 CE), when hundreds of thousands of khipus were created, consulted, and stored in special archives.

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

Imperial bureaucrats utilized khipus to record demographic data, labour tribute, inventories, ritual offerings, and similar kinds of information. 
Narrative khipus encoded biographies, histories, and poetry. 

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

Inca runners known as chaskis carried khipu missives along Inca roads from one administrative centre to another, allowing for long distance communication.

About 1400 khipus exist today in museum and university collections around the world.

Khipu found in Armatambo in the Rímac Valley (1400/1532) by Inca CultureMALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Most of the surviving Inca khipus are made of cotton, although some consist of animal fibres, and occasionally include human hairs, feathers, and other objects.  The standard Inca khipu was composed of a horizontal primary cord from which were suspended multiple pendant cords.

Quipu (khipu) fragment with subsidiary cords (1400–1570)Dallas Museum of Art

Knots on Inca khipus usually represented decimal numbers, which were determined by the type of knot and its position. 

Khipu (1400/1532) by Inca CultureMALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Needlework bundles occasionally tied to the end of a primary cord indicated the khipu's subject matter; the structure and colours of the primary cord also may have designated the topic.

Colour patterns on the pendant cords revealed whether the khipu encoded information about individual items or summarised aggregate data from multiple khipus.

Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Peru (completed in 1616) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Post-Incan

Until recently, scholars believed that khipu use died out in the Andes after the Spanish invasion in 1532, lingering only in the simple cords used by herders to keep track of their animals. 

Khipu (16th Century) by Inca CultureMALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

We now know, however, that khipus continued to be made throughout the Spanish colonial period and into the Republican era.  Andean witnesses read from khipus during court cases in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

This khipu testimony from colonial trials, known as "paper khipus", provides insights into the ongoing role of khipus during the colonial era. Some Roman Catholic missionaries encouraged the use of khipus for catechesis, confession, and prayers.  

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

A few communities in the Andes have retained their khipus into the modern era, either as an active technology or as a treasured relic of the past.  There is a great diversity among modern khipus, which range from simple herding cords to more complex Inca styles.  

Credits: Story

Sabine Hyland PhD

Credits: All media
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