The History of the Quipu: South America's Writing Technology

Quipu Knotted String Technology Record Keeping at Least 1,200 Years Old

Quipu at the Inca Larco Museum in Lima Peru
Quipu at the Inca Larco Museum in Lima Peru. bobistraveling

It has been well-established by archaeologists and historians alike that the South American Inca Empire (AD 1450-1532) kept records of their vast holdings using a system of knotted and dyed cords called khipu (alternatively spelled quipu). It has also been recognized for some time that the khipu system was used in some corners of the former Inca empire throughout the colonial period and into early modern times.

Most recently, however, samples of khipus have been found in the pre-Inca period, most conclusively with the Middle Horizon Wari (Huari) culture, and perhaps even associated with the pre-ceramic cultures of Caral-Supe. The following is a brief summary of reported archaeological and historical evidence of khipu use in South America.

Caral (possible, ca 2500 BC)

Caral is a preceramic (Archaic) culture in South America, which consists of some 18 villages which include enormous mounds, monumental architecture quite astonishing for its date. In 2005, there appeared in the journal Science a preliminary report that archaeologists had unearthed a possible khipu in a cache buried inside a pyramid at Caral.

The object was said to resemble a khipu, except that the pendant strings were twisted around small sticks. If correct, that places the khipu's invention at approximately 4000-4500 years ago. Further information has not been published to my knowledge, and it may be that the interpretation or context was found to be in error.

Middle Horizon Wari (AD 600-1000)

The strongest evidence for pre-Inca use of khipu record keeping is from the Middle Horizon (AD 600-1000) Wari (or Huari) empire, an early urban and perhaps state level Andean society centered at the capital city of Huari, Peru. The competing and contemporary Tiwanaku state also had a cord device called a chino, but little information is available about its technology or characteristics to date.

In a 2014 article in Antiquity, archaeologist Gary Urton presented data on a total of 17 khipus which date to the Wari period, several of which have been radiocarbon-dated. The oldest so far is dated to cal AD 777-981, from a sample in the American Museum of Natural History.

Wari Styles

Wari khipus are made of cords of white cotton, which were then wrapped with elaborately dyed threads made from the wool of camelids (alpaca and llama). Knot styles found incorporated in the cords are simple overhand knots, and they are predominantly plied in a Z-twist fashion.

The Wari khipus are organized in two main formats: primary cord and pendant, and loop and branch. The primary cord of a khipu is a long horizontal cord, from which hangs a number of thinner cords. Some of those descending cords also have pendants, called subsidiary cords. The loop and branch type has an elliptical loop for a primary cord; pendant cords descend from it in series of loops and branches. Researcher Urton (2014) believes that the main organizational counting system may have been base 5 (Inca has been determined to be base 10) or the Wari may not have used such a representation.

Inca (1450-1532)

The best known khipus are, of course, the ones dated to the Inca period (1450-Spanish conquest in 1532).

These are known both from the archaeological record and from the historical reports--hundreds are in museums around the world, with data on 450 of them residing in the Khipu Database at Harvard University.

Inca khipus were made from strings of spun and plied threads of cotton or camelid (alpaca and llama) fibers. The were typically in only one organized form: primary cord and pendant. The single primary cords are of widely variable length, but are typically about a half centimeter (about two-tenths of an inch) in diameter. Between two and 1,500 thinner pendant cords are tied onto the primaries: the average in the Harvard database is 84. In about 25% of the khipus, the pendant cords have subsidiary pendant cords. One sample in Chile contained six levels.

Inka Quipu Characteristics

Inka khipu cords are decorated in at least 52 different colors, either as a single solid color, twisted into two color "barber poles", or as an unpatterned mottled groups of colors. They have three kinds of knots, a single/overhand knot like that found on Middle Horizon khipus, a long knot of multiple twists of the overhand style and an elaborate figure-of-eight knot.

The knots are tied in tiered clusters, which have been identified as recording the numbers of objects in a base-10 system.

Researcher Sabine Hyland unearthed notes taken by German archaeologist Max Uhle in 1894. Uhle interviewed a shepherd who told him that the figure-of-eight knots on his khipu stood for 100 animals, the long knots were 10s and single overhand knots represented a single animal.

In 2015, Urton and Chu reported that 34 Inca khipu were found in or near storehouses at the military installation and accounting center called Inkawasi. Some of the khipu were in direct association with plant parts such as chili peppers, black beans and peanuts. Examining the khipus, Urton and Chu think they have discovered a recurring pattern of a number--15--that may represent the amount of tax due to the empire on each of these foodstuffs.This is the first time that archaeology has been able to explicitly connect khipus to accounting practices

Colonial Period to Modern Day (1532 - present)

At the time of the Spanish invasion, khipu were kept and maintained by khipucamayocs (khipukamayuq), specialists and shamans who trained for years to master the intricacies of the multi-layered codes.This was not a technology shared by everyone in the Inca community.

 

At first, the Spanish encouraged the use of khipu for various colonial enterprises, from recording collected tribute to keeping track of sins in the confessional. The converted Inca peasant was supposed to bring a khipu to the priest to confess his sins, and read those sins during that confession. That stopped when the priests realized that most of the people couldn't actually use a khipu in that manner: the converts had to return to the khipu specialists to obtain a khipu and a list of sins that corresponded to the knots.

After that, the Spanish worked to suppress the use of the khipu. See papers by Kenney and Hyland for more on this period in Peruvian history.

Modern Aspects

From historic records, it's clear that elite knowledge about Inca rulers--including rules of succession and dynastic histories--was kept in khipus. Parallel Spanish and khipu records were kept for a while on tribute collection, mainly because the Inca population didn't trust the Spanish to deal honestly with them.

After the Spanish took hold, however, elite information was stored in written versions of the Quechua and Spanish languages. The historian Garcilaso de la Vega based his reports of the downfall of Atahualpa on both khipu and Spanish sources. It might have been at the same time that khipu technology began to spread outside of the khipucamayocs and Inca rulers: some Andean herders today still use khipu to keep track of their llama and alpaca herds.

In the first decade of the 21st century, anthropologist Frank Salomon was given an incredible amount of insight into what quipu are used for today in the modern Peruvian village of Tupicocha. His work The Cord Keepers is one of the best sources of information on what the quipus may have meant to Tupicocha's Incan ancestors.

 

Sources

For much more information on the quipu in all its forms, see the Khipu Database Project website at Harvard University.

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Inca Empire, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Cherkinsky A, and Urton G. 2014. Radiocarbon chronology of Andean khipus. Open Journal of Archaeometry 2(1).

Hyland S. 2010. Sodomy, Sin, and String Writing: The Moral Origins of Andean Khipu. Ethnohistory 57(1):165-173.

Hyland S. 2014. Ply, Markedness, and Redundancy: New Evidence for How Andean Khipus Encoded Information. American Anthropologist 116(3):643-648.

Kenney A. 2013. Encoding authority: Navigating the uses of khipu in colonial Peru. Traversea 3:66.

Mann CC. 2005. Unraveling Khipu's Secrets. Science 309(5737):1008-1009.

Salomon F. 2004. The Cord Keepers: Khipus and Cultural Life in a Peruvian Village.

Durham, North Carolina: Duke University.

Urton G. 2014. From Middle Horizon cord-keeping to the rise of Inka khipus in the central Andes. Antiquity 88(339):205-221.

Urton G, and Chu A. 2015. Accounting in the King's Storehouse: The Inkawasi Khipu Archive. Latin American Antiquity 26(4):512-529.