Unraveling the Mystery of Khipus

I don’t remember the first time I read about khipus (also spelled quipus). Most likely, it was the summer that I spent at a Spanish language institute in Mexico and was assigned the topic “Who were the Incas?” for a culture report. I remember being intrigued with the mathematical possibilities of something that sounded like a soft abacus. But I set aside my curiosity in order to focus on learning the names of all the Inca leaders—names that all seemed to have way too many letters.

So now, all these years later, I was very interested in the ATA Textile Talk, “Written in Knots: What We Know Today About Khipus,” presented by Juan Antonio Murro, the curator for pre-Columbian art for the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, DC. 

He began his presentation by saying that the Spanish never bothered to ask how the khipus worked or what they meant. Yet many of the chroniclers of the period included detailed drawings of khipus, so they obviously realized that they were somehow important. I made a mental note to do some more research into this.

Murro explained a typical khipu’s structure. A khipu might include a main horizontal cord, pendant cords (some with subsidiary cords in a variety of possible configurations), and top cords. Top cords were like the pendant cords except they were above the main cord, rather than below it.

He also demonstrated a variety of knots that indicated different amounts of whatever that particular khipu was recording.  A statistical khipu, for instance, could be recording census numbers, tribute or tax records, resources stored in storehouses, war contributions, numbers of llamas or alpacas, number of people passing thru an area, or other numerical data.

There were also narrative khipus, which could somehow record the life and history of the Inca leaders, calendar events, accounts of war or conquest, and, surprisingly, even poetry or astrology. Of the various original khipus that have been discovered and preserved, however, researchers really have no idea what each particular khipu might be documenting. It struck me that we need a “Rosetta Stone” to help us figure out the meanings of each of the khipus.

To add to the frustrating puzzle, Murro told us that there are countless translations—books with stories of what the khipus were documenting—but we don’t have the khipus to match these narratives. 

He also noted that the Wari peoples—who came before the Inca civilization—also used a form of khipu, but theirs had different colored threads, adding an additional layer of information beyond what the plain-colored khipus of the Incas had available.

So thank you,  Juan Antonio Murro, for unraveling a little of the mystery that the khipus contain. Now I want to learn more. 

Top photo: Khipu on display at The Textile Museum in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Ercil Howard.

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