Tour the First Khipu Exhibition

Learn all about khipus through this guided online tour

MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Step inside the first Khipu exhibition

Named after the Quechua word for “knot,” the khipu —primary record-keeping system used in the pre-Hispanic Andes— was a portable archive of information. Khipus and their knotted cords have been object of study and admiration ever since they were introduced to the world by the Spanish chroniclers in the mid-sixteenth century. 

Numerical and Narrative Khipus

During Inca times, when the use of khipus was at its height, there seem to have been two main ways of recording information. Quantitative or statistical khipus recorded numerical data using a system of knots organized based on a decimal positional structure, where zero is signified by the absence of knots. 

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

Narrative Khipu

For their part, narrative khipus —a general term used for those exemplars whose knots are not positioned using the decimal system— were probably used in performance or dissemination activities that narrated stories, memoirs, poems, or songs.

Narrative khipus remained in use even after the European Conquista, as attested to by colonial descriptions, as well as radiocarbon dating of samples.

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

Color Patterns and Spacing

Today we know that in addition to knots, khipus included other ways of classifying information, such as the use of colors or the spacing between cords.    

Cords of different colors, organized in color series—white-brown-black/white-brown-black—indicated larger groupings of people, such as ayllus; while the organization of cords in bands of color—red-red-red/white-white-white—provided information on individuals, such as a particular member of an ayllu.

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

Additionally, the spacing between the cords was used to establish a division between the categories recorded. 

The "Knot Keepers"

The empire’s administrators were responsible for organizing and supervising the development of conquered peoples. Among their duties was to record production, storage, and payment of taxes to the state; thus, their name of khipucamayoq, or “knot makers/keepers.”

Armatambo and the Burial of a Khipukamayuq

Armatambo was an urban settlement located in the Rímac Valley, at the edge of the sea, and was the capital of the kingdom of Sulco. As part of the Ychsma estate, it was absorbed by the Incas during the second half of the fifteenth century. 

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

The discovery of a tomb containing eight khipus in one of the public structures of this center, reveals the local influence of the empire. 

Wooden plate found in Armatambo in the Rímac Valley Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú. Ministerio de Cultura del Perú (1400/1532)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Among the offerings there was a small cotton cloth decorated with figures of birds, felines and lizards in the Ychsma style, as well as tocapu designs in the Inca style. The hybrid nature of this fabric may indicate local groups’ cultural adaptation to the Inca Empire, especially among those who held the position of administrator or khipukamayuq.

Inkawasi, an Inca Storehouse in the coast

According to the chronicler Cieza de León, the storehouses of Inkawasi, an Incan administrative center located in the Cañete Valley, were used to supply the military forces of the Inca Tupac Yupanqui in his struggle against the Huarco people in the early sixteenth century.

Double Khipu found inside of a basket covered with chili peppers in Inkawasi, Cañete Ministerio de Cultura del Perú (1400/1532)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

Between 2013 and 2016, excavations at this site uncovered more than 50 khipus. Found in different sectors of the site, usually near courtyards and storehouses, several khipus were directly associated with crops such as black beans, ají chili peppers, and peanuts, which suggests that they were used to record information on these crops.

There was also a group of tools and khipu fragments based on which it has been possible to reconstruct the process involved in making these exemplars, which seems to have occurred frequently at Inkawasi.  

The yupana—which means “account” or “accountant”—is the Quechua word for the Andean abacus, used to perform mathematical calculations with pebbles or seeds. While the yupana performed calculations, the khipus recorded them. 

Colonial Khipus

Following the Conquista, khipus were incorporated into colonial society, where they were mainly used to record censuses, tax collection information, and court files.      

Khipu Museo Central. Banco Central de Reserva del Perú (16th-18th Century)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

However, conflicts between colonial administrators—who could not read khipus—and the indigenous people—who were skeptical of the narratives recorded in written documents—led to the prohibition of khipus around the end of the sixteenth century.    

Khipu Museo Central. Banco Central de Reserva del Perú (16th-18th Century)MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima

The use of khipus was thus limited to rural parishes, where Catholic priests ordered converted natives to keep a record of their sins, noting them down using khipu, along with tax payments and ecclesiastical obligations. 

The Khipu-Board of Mangas

This nineteenth-century wooden board from San Cristóbal de Mangas, in Ancash, contains a list or padrón of residents who attended the community’s church. It has holes next to each name listed, through which twisted and knotted cords still run. Each cord may have been used to indicate some type of obligation on the part of each resident, mainly associated with communal activities.    

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