Introduction to Quipu - South America's Unknown Inca Writing System

An Introduction to the Inca Writing System Known as Quipu

Inca Khipu, from the Collections of the LACMA Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Inca Khipu, from the Collections of the LACMA Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Lynn Dombrowski

The Inca writing system called quipu (also spelled khipu or quipo) is the only known precolumbian writing system in South America—well, perhaps writing system isn't quite the correct phrase. But quipus were clearly an information transmittal system, and not just for the Inca. Instead of a clay tablet impressed with triangles like cuneiform, or a piece of papyrus with symbols painted on it like Egyptian hieroglyphs, a quipu is essentially a collection of dyed and twisted wool and cotton strings tied together, a knotted page of information which could be easily transported and easily translated by people who knew the code across the wide expanses of South America.

While scholars have yet to translate the quipu, we do know that information was embedded in the quipu in a number of different ways. The strings in a quipu were dyed in many different colors, and the strings are connected in many different ways, with a wide variety and number of simple and complex knots. Together the type of wool or cooton, the colors, the knots and the joins hold information that was once readable by several South American societies. Today we have only an inkling of what stories these amazing threads might be holding for us.

Effects of the Spanish Conquest

Quipus became known to Europeans in the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived in South America. The latest in a long history of South American societies to use the technique, the Inca empire used quipus to communicate a wide variety of political, economic, genealogical and other kinds of information to keep their enormous empire working.

According to 16th century historians such as Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, quipu were carried throughout the empire by relay riders, called chasquis, who brought the information along the Inca road system, keeping the Inca rulers up to date with the goings on in their farflung empire.

It must be said: it was an incalculable loss to global society when the Spanish arrived in Cuzco in 1532.

The conquistadors, still members of the Spanish Inquisition, viewed the quipu with great suspicion, as well they might, using religious prejudice and superstition to stamp out what they perceived as dangerous heresy, including the use of quipu.

Thousands of quipus were destroyed in the 16th century. Today there are only roughly 300 quipus which were preserved or have been discovered since that time.

Quipu Meanings

Quipus have not yet been deciphered, but some educated guesses about what they represent have been attempted. Certainly they were used for administrative tracking of tributes and records of the production levels of various farmers and artisans throughout the empire. Some quipu may have represented maps of the pilgrimage road network known as the ceque system and/or they may have been mnemonic devices to help oral historians remember ancient legends or the genealogical relationships so important to Inca society. They may even have those legends encoded in them; but the likelihood that we'll ever translate them is very small.

Quipus predate the Inca, and are known to have been crucial to the Chimú state operations. They may have been used by the Moche and Tiwanaku civilizations, although quipu from those societies have not as yet been discovered.

The oldest known quipus were discovered in a handful of Wari sites, made about 1,200 years ago.

More on the Quipu


This glossary entry is part of the Guide to the Inca Empire, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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